New Zealand Votes 'Yes' to Legal Euthanasia

New Zealand just became the first country to legalise euthanasia by public vote.
October 30, 2020, 3:24am
Jacinda Ardern
Photo by Marty MELVILLE / AFP

New Zealand has emphatically voted to legalise euthanasia for those with a terminal illness, with preliminary results indicating that 65 percent of respondents voted “yes” to the proposed laws in a binding referendum. 

The End of Life Choice Act—which gives terminally ill people the opportunity to undergo assisted dying in the last six months of their lives, provided they meet certain criteria—will come into effect 12 months from the final results, on November 6, 2021. 

New Zealand was the first country to put the question of assisted dying to a public vote, and is now set to become the seventh country to officially legalise it.

The Act was previously passed in November 2019, whereupon it was agreed that the new laws would only come into effect if more than 50 percent of people voted “yes” on a referendum ballot. That ballot was one of two issued to New Zealanders on election day last month, the other being a question on whether to legalise cannabis—which, according to the preliminary results, did not succeed.

Under the new legislation, anyone hoping to undergo assisted dying must be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident over the age of 18, with a terminal illness likely to end their life within six months, and be at an advanced state of irreversible decline in physical capability. They must also be of a sound mind according to a specified psychological test, and—crucially—believe in their own view that they are unable to alleviate their suffering in any other way. Patients will not be able to access euthanasia for reasons of age, disability or mental illness.

The level of support for the laws currently reflected in the preliminary results is more or less exactly what previous polls suggested it would be, with support for the assisted dying bill hovering between 60 and 70 percent as recently as July. But the proposition was not without its detractors.

A loud cohort of politicians, medical professionals and religious figures staunchly opposed the End of Life Choice Act, broadly arguing that to legalise assisted dying would be to contravene the sanctity of life and empower medical professionals to make decisions that are beyond their remit. In June 2019, 1,061 of the country’s 17,000 registered doctors (about 6 percent) signed an open letter saying they wanted no part in assisted dying. 

Research further indicated that those most opposed to the change in legislation tended to be palliative care specialists, many of whom argued that the country’s end-of-life care was already sufficient for alleviating the suffering of people with terminal illnesses. The majority of New Zealand citizens appear to disagree, according to the referendum results, in what is a huge win for euthanasia advocates and people living with a terminal illness who want to end their own lives.

One of those is 60-year-old Stuart Armstrong, an outspoken supporter of the End of Life Choice Act who was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2015. Armstrong enlisted as a member of David Seymour’s ACT Party for his local electorate and loudly championed his beliefs in people’s right to die in the months leading up to the referendum. 

Speaking to VICE News earlier this year, he indicated how much the passing of the laws would mean to someone in his position.

“This is not just a cup of coffee political debate about an interesting issue; this is life and death for me,” he said.

“There’s no negatives,” he added. “No one extra is going to die because of this bill; just a whole lot of people aren't going to suffer miserably doing it.”

Follow Gavin on Twitter