New Zealand’s euthanasia or assisted dying act

Source: By Mehr Gill: The Indian Express

As per preliminary referendum results, a majority of voters in New Zealand have voted in favour of the End of Life Choice Act 2019. As people voted in the general elections, they also had the option to vote in two referendums. One of the referendums was on cannabis legalisation and control, which over 53 per cent of the voters voted against. The second referendum asked the public to vote on whether the End of Life Choice Act 2019 should come into force.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has revealed that she voted “yes” in both the referendums. Even so, Preliminary results do not include over 480,000 special votes. The final results will be declared on November 6.

The  End of Life Choice Act 2019   is meant to give certain terminally ill people the option of requesting medical assistance to end their lives and to establish a lawful process for assisting eligible persons who are able to exercise that option.

The opponents of the Act such as the Euthanasia Free-NZ group maintain that it lacks oversight and safeguards and have pointed out issues with the eligibility criteria such as the age limit of 18 years and the “arbitrary” nature of the 6-month prognosis.

The Act was passed in November 2019, but requires that it gets at least 50 per cent of the votes in the 2020 referendum to be effective. One of the most significant cases that shaped the debate around assisted suicide in New Zealand was of a lawyer Lecretia Seales who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011. After Seales’ options of getting treated were exhausted, she reviewed her end of life alternatives and believed that she wanted physician-assisted suicide.

Her widower, Matt Vickers, who maintained a blog, mentions that Seales, “would have liked the choice to receive physician-assisted death, to bring about her demise no sooner than the point that she determined she had no quality of life, and before she entered a long, pointless and wasteful period of suffering prior to her death”.

In March 2015, Seales and her lawyers filed a statement of claim with the High Court of New Zealand arguing that her general physician should not be prosecuted for assisting her in her death and that under the Bill of Rights Act of 1962, she had the right to not be subjected to “the unnecessary suffering of a long, cruel death.

Seales died on June 5, 2015 and on the same day the judgment of Seales versus Attorney General was made public, in which she was not allowed to seek physician-assisted dying. However, the judge made several statements in support of Seales’s wishes and the case became a catalyst in bringing politicians in the country to engage with this topic.

What is assisted dying?

As per the Act, assisted dying means when a person’s doctor or nurse gives them medication to relieve their suffering by bringing on death or when a person takes the medication themselves. Therefore, the act interprets assisted dying as referring to both euthanasia and assisted suicide. While the former refers to the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to end their suffering, the latter refers to assisting a person to kill themselves.

In some countries such as in the UK, both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal. In the UK, while euthanasia is regarded as manslaughter or murder, assisted suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. However, trying to kill yourself is not an illegal act in the country.

As per New Zealand’s act, the provisions of the law are limited to terminally ill people and are subject to the fulfillment of various criteria.

What is the eligibility criterion for assisted dying?

In order to be eligible for assisted dying, the individual must be 18 years or older, be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand, suffer from a terminal illness that is likely to end their life in less than six months, have a significant and ongoing decline in physical capability, experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and they should be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying. The individual should meet all of the criteria to be eligible.

How is a person’s competence to make an informed decision measured?

The individual should understand information about assisted dying, remember information about assisted dying in order to make the decision, use or weigh up information about assisted dying to inform their decision and communicate their decision about assisted dying in some way.

What is not allowed under this law?

A person is not eligible for assisted dying if they are suffering from a mental disorder or a mental illness, if they have a disability of any kind or they are of advanced age. Even so, a health practitioner is now allowed to suggest that a person consider dying while providing a health service to that individual.

What are the methods of assisted dying?

There are four as per the Act. These include ingestion, intravenous delivery, and ingestion through a tube or injection. At the chosen time of receiving the medication, the person can either say no or delay the process.

Where else is assisted dying legal?

Assisted dying is legal in parts of Australia, Canada, Colombia, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and some states in the US.