Euthanasia: Should we permit it

A 41-years-old senior legal and policy advisor with the Law Commission, suffering from terminal brain cancer reignited the debate about assisted dying in New Zealand in 2015


The issue has come up three items before the country's highest law-making body in the last twenty years – in 1995, 2003, and finally in 2012 as the End of Life Choice private member's bill by then Labour MP Maryan Street. But still, the country is yet to see an informed and knowledgeable debate on the subject of whether to legalise euthanasia in New Zealand. As of now, and unlike Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and some parts of US and Canada, euthanasia is a punishable crime in New Zealand with provisions of up to 14 years imprisonment.

This prompted Lecretia Seales, a 41-year-old senior legal and policy advisor with the Law Commission, who died from brain cancer last year, to file a legal challenge in the High Court seeking what she believed was her “fundamental human right” - to choose to end her life with medical assistance.

But the issue is complex with opinions clearly divided.

On one side is the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand Inc. whose stated mission is “to change the law to entitle adults with a terminal illness or condition that makes life unbearable to choose how and when to die with medical assistance”.

For this, the Society claims large scale public support “with nearly 7 out of 10 New Zealanders supporting or strongly supporting an End-Of-Life Choice, for those who qualify and who request it”, as revealed in the Horizon Research Survey carried out in 2012.

Moreover, the society says that while assisting in as suicide is illegal, “recent court cases reveal the compassion of New Zealand judges when they consider the charges, especially in cases in which it is obvious that the accused did not stand to benefit from the death. Where a conviction is brought in by a jury, the Courts seem to be inclined to take a lenient view when handing down sentences”.

To argues its case, the Society recently organised a near-month-long country tour of Dr. Rob Jonquiere, principal architect of the Netherlands euthanasia legislation and one of the world's leading campaigners for medically-assisted dying.

Refusing medical treatment?

“In New Zealand, the process of allowing a natural death by refusing medical treatment or intervention is quite legal. A clause in our Bill of Rights Act 1990 gives an unambiguous right to refuse medical treatment. Our Code of Health Consumers' Rights confirms that statutory right and also enshrines in law the use of an appropriate Advance Directive. It goes even further, in that Advance Directives do not necessarily have to be in writing. In emergencies an oral directive has an equal effect”.


Better palliative care

On the other side are organisations such as Hospice New Zealand who does not support legalising assisted dying in any form. “We believe Government should be investing in palliative care, increasing access to care and support not legalising euthanasia. Only when all New Zealanders have ready access to expert end-of-life care can a balanced debate begin. We support that all New Zealanders have the right to choose where they die,” it says on its website.

Hospice's argument has found support from the NZ Medical Association, Palliative Care Nurses New Zealand and The Australian & New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine Inc. (ANZSPM), which also do not want a law change.

Dangerous for society

Other organisations which also oppose euthanasia include Euthanasia-Free NZ, which is a network of individuals from diverse professional, social and philosophical backgrounds, “united in the belief that the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide poses a great threat to the wellbeing of our society”.

According to the network, legal euthanasia poses eight dangers to the New Zealand society including elderly abuse, mistaken diagnosis of terminal illness, no guarantee of a dignified death, comprises the hospice movement, as well as falling trust in healthcare professionals over time.