New Zealanders today are to be asked to vote “yes” or “no” on whether people enduring “unbearable suffering that cannot be eased” have a legal right to end their life.
For Matt Vickers, the former husband of lawyer and euthanasia campaigner Lecretia Seales, the vote cannot come soon enough.
Lecretia died in 2015 of a brain tumor. Until her death, she and her husband fought tirelessly to make euthanasia legal in New Zealand, as it is in the Netherlands, Belgium, the Australian state of Victoria and some states of the US.
“I am feeling anxious I guess. I am really hopeful we will see a positive result, the polls are certainly looking that way, but opponents are doing their best to confuse, and create doubt and fear,” said Vickers, speaking from New York where he lives with his now wife and baby. “Choice is fundamental to who we are as human beings. When we don’t have choices we feel constrained and I think it’s necessary for people to support this referendum because it does provide choice in situations where most choices have been taken away from them.”
The End of Life Choice Act 2019 was sponsored by ACT New Zealand lawmaker David Seymour. It would allow those with a terminal illness to apply to terminate their life.
Although the act has passed through parliament it would only come into force if more than 50 percent of voters choose “yes” — at the same time as they are voting on a new government and whether to legalize marijuana.
The act outlines the criteria for those who can apply to end their life, including that they be aged 18 or over, are New Zealand citizens, are suffering from a terminal illness that would end their life within six months, “have a significant and ongoing decline in physical capability,” or are “enduring unbearable suffering that cannot be eased” and are in a position to make an “informed decision” about euthanasia.
Those suffering mental illness or decline would not be eligible, nor would those applying solely on the basis of “advanced age” or a disability.
Two doctors — one independent — would have to sign off on the decision, with a psychiatrist called in if either doctor has any doubts.
“We are decades behind the world leaders on end of life choice, and I think it’s time New Zealand moved towards being a more compassionate and tolerant society,” Seymour said. “People continue to suffer in ways that are traumatic. I don’t want to have to suffer on to adhere to the morality of someone else. They’ve got their own body if they want to have a ghastly death.”
For months now polling has shown strong public support for the “yes” vote of about 60 to 70 percent, and it has the backing of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, opposition New Zealand National Party leader Judith Collins, former prime minister Helen Clark and former attorney general Sir Michael Cullen.
“There is an overriding issue of control and dignity.” Cullen said when fronting a campaign for the “yes” vote.
Cullen has stage 4 cancer.
“It offers to people like me the chance of finishing the life I have enjoyed so much in a way consistent with my moral beliefs and my sense of the dignity of human life,” he said.
However, opponents of the act are determined to keep fighting, saying they fear New Zealand’s most vulnerable people would face coercion or pressure to end their life, influenced by the fear of being a burden.
Those voting no include former New Zealand prime minister Bill English, who is a practicing Catholic, Maori Party coleader John Tamihere and former New Zealand minister for seniors Maggy Barry.
The claim that vulnerable people would be disproportionately impacted by the act has not been supported by multiple reviews of euthanasia legislation in other jurisdictions, which have found the most likely demographic to access it are older, white and well-educated.
Huhana Hickey, 58, is of Maori origin and has a rare form of multiple sclerosis that confines her to a wheelchair. She plans to vote “no” in today’s referendum.
“Throughout this entire debate there has been no discussion with the indigenous people or other cultures. It’s a very Westernized law. If we’re going to allow the state to legally kill its citizens we need to make sure we’re protecting the ones who are already being killed by neglect,” said Hickey, referring to the systemic disadvantage of Maori and the poor state of the public healthcare system. “My concern is we don’t have dignity in living now for the disabled, and Maori are already discriminated against and denied treatment. Why in the middle of a pandemic are we discussing legally killing people?”
Political experts say that in years of unrest and instability voters tend to veer toward conservatism — which could affect the likelihood of both referendum questions passing.
If the euthanasia referendum is successful, it is binding and would come into effect in October next year, regardless of who wins today’s general election.
End-of-Life Choice Society president Mary Panko said that she has witnessed three friends die long, painful deaths of cancer and does not want anyone else to suffer.
Panko said that the act would only provide euthanasia as an option for the sickest in society — the 5 to 6 percent of those at the end of their life for whom palliative care is no longer managing their suffering.
“There is wider movement through the whole medical community now that people should make their own choices — we’re talking about people in great suffering and pain,” Panko said. “I loathe suffering, I loathe watching it in my friends and any sorts of creatures. It helps people to cope with terrible illness if they know they have the option of a peaceful death.”
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