The origin of the word is the Greek eu thanaos, meaning ‘good death’ or to die well without pain. Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending the life of another person by non-violent means. Euthanasia, including voluntary euthanasia, is illegal in New Zealand. However, there have been attempts to change the law.
Euthanasia activism began in New Zealand in 1978 when members of the NZ Humanists Association and the Rationalists formed the Auckland Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Apart from sponsoring Derek Humphry on a speaking tour, things got off to a fairly slow start to bring about social change.
The Legal Barrier
The 1961 Crime Act does not deal directly with euthanasia, but legislates on suicide and assisting another person to die.
The key statutes are: Section 167(a) and Section 179.
Section 167(a) refers to anyone who kills, murders.
Section 179, refers to a person who aids or abets another to commit suicide.
Both Death with Dignity Bills sought exemptions to these prohibitions.
Death with Dignity Bill, 1995
This bill was inspired by the example of the Northern Territory Parliament, who on May 25th, 1995, voted to allow voluntary euthanasia. The Bill was later overruled by the Federal Government.
This saga generated huge public debate in Australia, which was widely reported in New Zealand. In June, Michael Laws had polled his constituents on a number of issues, including euthanasia – and believed that the time was right to emulate the Northern Territory Bill.
He joined forces with fellow MP Cam Campion, who was then terminally ill with cancer and they promoted the Death with Dignity bill. Cam Campion’s plight generated much public sympathy.
The Death with Dignity Bill would come into force only after a national referendum, to be held at the time of the next general election in late 1996.
In the event, the Bill came before the House on the evening of 2nd August and then was deferred to the 16th August. MPs debated whether it should be introduced into the House and sent to a select committee. 29 voted Yes, 61 voted No.
There were a variety of reasons for the defeat: Laws’ personal unpopularity with many MPs, compounded by a disastrous television appearance where he appeared open to euthanasia for disabled children. Concern grew among many MPs about the dangers of subtle “duty-to-die” pressure on the elderly.
Death with Dignity Bill, 2003
The promoter of the second Death with Dignity Bill 2003, MP Peter Brown, was Deputy Leader of the New Zealand Party.
His Private Member’s Bill was drawn from the ballot on 6 March 2003 and was very similar to the 1995 Death with Dignity Bill, promoted by Michael Laws. The Bill would have allowed persons who were terminally and/or incurably ill, to request a medically qualified person to end their lives in a “humane and dignified way – and to provide for that to occur after medical confirmation, a psychiatric assessment, counselling and personal reflection”.
At its first reading on 30 July 2003 the bill was negatived following a personal vote (by 60 to 58 votes with one abstention).
End of Life Choice Bill, 2012
Labour MP Hon Maryan Street entered an End of Life Choice Bill in July 2012. With a general election approaching, she withdrew the bill in September 2013 stating: “I’m concerned that it would not get the treatment it deserves. It needs sober, considered reflection, and that’s not a hallmark of election years in my experience”. At the request of Labour Party leader Andrew Little, the bill was not re-entered in the ballot following the 2014 election.
End of Life Choice Bill, current
Act leader David Seymour introduced the End of Life Choice Bill in June 2017. The explanatory note states that the Bill gives “people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition the option of requesting assisted dying.” The bill has passed both its first and second readings, the latter happening in June this year (70 votes yes, to 50).
The third reading of the bill is passed and it has been decided that there will be a referendum on the issue in 2020. It is a good idea to inform yourself with both sides of the argument and really think how this issue might impact you and your loved ones.
This is a complex, sensitive and divisive issue that will continue to cause debate, even if the bill is passed. Watch this space.