As well as choosing a new government, October’s election gives us the opportunity to support or oppose the legalisation of euthanasia and recreational use of cannabis. Here, Sinéad Donnelly of the Care Alliance argues for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum on the End of Life Choice Act.
The referendum question is not about whether a case can be made for euthanasia in New Zealand. It’s about the robustness of a particular law – the End of Life Choice Act 2019.
The Act is wider than many assisted death laws because it allows both assisted suicide and euthanasia. By contrast, Victoria – with a small exception – and states such as Oregon and California only allow assisted suicide.
The Act poses a significant risk of wrongful deaths. There are too many uncertainties involved, including the difficulties of accurately predicting how long someone will live, the possibility of a wrongful medical diagnosis, and the difficulties of determining competence. Neither is it designed as a measure of ‘last resort’ for ‘difficult cases’ because people do not have to be in pain and nor do they first have to try treatments or palliative care, even if they would be effective.
There is a high risk that persons will feel coerced into an assisted death, whether from their own feelings of being a burden or because of an uncaring family or uncaring society. The wording in the Act simply states that the attending doctor should “do their best to ensure that the person expresses their wish free from pressure from any other person”. This suggests an acceptance that coercion will happen, indicating a lower standard of professional behaviour than is normally expected of doctors. As the NZMA has noted: “The provisions in the Bill will not ensure that a decision to seek assisted dying will always be made freely and without subtle coercion.”
Under the Act, terminally ill persons are not necessarily excluded if they are suffering from depression or an underlying mental illness. No mental health screening is required of a terminally ill person who asks for euthanasia. Depression is very difficult to detect, and even mild depression can seriously skew a person’s judgement.
There is no requirement that a person be competent at the time the lethal dose is to be administered, unlike overseas jurisdictions. Incredibly, there is also no mandatory cooling-off period before the administration of the lethal dose, as with overseas laws. The only timeframe specified in the End of Life Choice Act 2019 is a minimum of 48 hours between the writing of the prescription and the chosen time of death. That means the process from request to death could happen in four days.
In 2019, a group of New Zealand researchers and mental health practitioners, having looked at the overseas evidence, wrote an open letter stating it cannot be ruled out that legalising assisted dying won’t lead to further increases in our already tragically high suicide rates.
Finally, the Act fails to provide a corresponding right to receive palliative care. In Canada, with a similar law, there is evidence of patients choosing assisted death because they could not access quality palliative care. There is not yet uniform access to palliative care in New Zealand.
It’s not compassionate to vote for this dangerous and flawed law. Even those who favour the idea of euthanasia will vote No to this Act.
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