Health

Now That Two Thirds of New Zealanders Support Euthanasia, Is it Time To Change the Law?

Since the death of euthanasia campaigner Lecretia Seales, public opinion seems to have reached a tipping point but the political will is slow to catch up.
January 13, 2017, 12:13am
Image Dan Cox via Flickr.

The majority of New Zealanders support euthanasia. A new University of Auckland study has found 66 percent of New Zealanders are in favour of doctors being legislatively allowed to end a person's life if they're suffering for a painful incurable disease. Only 12 percent said they are strongly opposed.

Over 15,000 participants were questioned for the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study Survey in 2014 and 2015, around the same time that terminally ill Lecretia Seales was spearheading a public campaign on the issue. Lecretia brought her case before the courts arguing it was her right to not be subject to cruel or degrading treatment under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. She died just hours after her family received a negative judgment by the Wellington High Court.

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Lecretia's high profile fight brought assisted dying into the spotlight, with both John Key and Andrew Little voicing their support for changing the law. But since then the issue has been at a legislative standstill. Act MP David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill has been sitting in the ballot box since 2015. The Health Select Committee launched an investigation a year ago after Labour MP Maryan Street delivered a petition to parliament requesting it, and are yet to report back.

The new survey figures, published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal, come as little surprise to Lecretia's husband, Matt Vickers. Matt told VICE politicians have been cowardly in addressing overwhelming public opinion.

"My wife worked very hard to fight for legislative change and gave up some of her own life in the hope that people might understand the issue. I hope policy makers respect that sacrifice. We should applaud and promote personal decision-making and autonomy."

Legislative change would bring New Zealand in line with Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Colombia, Estonia, Albania, Quebec, and the US states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont. Yet academics here warn the issue is complicated, saying the most vulnerable mightn't be reflected in the majority, and legislative change would only legitimise what's already covertly going on within the medical profession.

For the everyday New Zealander, the issue is polarising. John Hicks' dad was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2014 and given two weeks to live.

John told VICE he sees two sides to the argument. The family were told his dad wouldn't make it till Christmas—he was really ill and depressed he couldn't do anything for himself. He wanted it to end and had it been legal he would've chosen voluntary euthanasia. He survived that Christmas, he made it to his 46th birthday, John's 21st, and another Christmas before passing away in March last year.

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"That whole time he was living he wasn't hugely happy—but it was a special time for us all because it was a year and a bit more than we were expecting," says John.

Meanwhile, Victoria University senior law lecturer Māmari Stephens says that although she has an interest in the area due to her mother dying of lung cancer in 2015, Māmari fears much of the debate around legislative change is prompted by subjective personal stories.

"I just don't think individual experiences are a great guide as to how the law should be.

"My mother was a staunch supporter of voluntary euthanasia all her life. I have many memories of her saying, 'If I ever get to the point where I can't have a drink or a smoke, you've got to pull the plug'. As a kid I thought I didn't want that kind of responsibility put on me. Then she got terminal lung cancer, and then cancer-related dementia."

Māmari really valued her last days with her mother, but pro euthanasia supporters would say that's a selfish argument, she says.

"No-one wants to die like a dog, they'd say. Fair call, but I'm glad we had those last moments. It's a very emotive space."

In legal terms, those who are pro euthanasia talk of a right to death as if there's a right to life, which doesn't exist in a complete human rights context. A legislative right to death, if sanctioned by the state, doesn't just mean freedom to kill yourself, it imposes a duty on the state to provides the means to do so, she says.

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"I object to that. And where do you draw the line? The current government would create a set of circumstances and safeguards. What's to stop the next government lowering those thresholds, and the next government after that? I don't trust governments enough, certainly it's an emotive argument but there's genuine concern there."

And while two thirds of New Zealand might be in favour of voluntary euthanasia, because we live in a secular society, it's of little surprise the majority are in agreement but that doesn't protect society's most vulnerable, she says.

"Pasifika, for example are often affiliated with the church, which values life and are suspicious of the state to terminate life. In addition there are cultural circumstances—older people might be cut off from society, isolated by virtue of language difficulties, abusive families, poverty. Assisted dying could be dangerous to our most vulnerable if legislation were to be put in place."

But medical sociologist and Otago University PhD student Jessica Young says other jurisdictions and international studies suggest there are other factors at play.

The Attitudes and Values Study Survey reveals there is a clear divide in opinion along demographic lines. Non-religious, younger, employed, rural people more likely to support euthanasia, whereas people with lower income, who were parents, or of Pacific or Asian ethnicity tended to be less supportive.

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Over the next three years Jessica hopes to talk to terminally ill people of different ages and cultural backgrounds, their family members, and influential health professionals. She's interested in people's moral reasoning and the moral ambiguities around choice and autonomy.

"Who gets to decide how we get to live and how we should live? I'm interested in what this tells us about our social and cultural values around death and dying."

While those against euthanasia fear the most vulnerable will be harmed, or that healthy people will opt to be euthanised, Jessica's research on places such as Oregon has debunked the slippery slope argument. Safeguards around not being coerced, having a sound mind in the decision-making process, and meeting a set criteria suggests laws can allow and protect safe voluntary euthanasia, she says.

Euthanasia can be interpreted as already covertly going on within the medical profession under the rule of double effect. For example, you can give someone an unlimited amount of morphine if the intention is to relieve pain, they knowingly might die in the process but so long as the intention is to relieve pain and not kill them, that is considered fine by health professionals.

A legislative change would simply protect these medical professionals who are comfortable with the euthanasia process, says Young.

Besides, suppose a person is getting good palliative care, it's likely that even if they have the option to euthanise, they won't necessarily carry it out. According to Oregon doctor Peter Reagan, for every 25 people who enquire about assisted dying, only one will go through with it.

Ultimately, other countries are increasingly legislating towards euthanasia, and the New Zealand public appears to be in agreement but the debate isn't over. Despite New Zealand pitching itself as being politically progressive, "perhaps we're more conservative than we think we are", says Jessica.

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