Last month New Zealand made history by joining a growing list of nations to legalise assisted dying for those with a terminal illness. The question was put to the country in a referendum held at the same time as the New Zealand General Election. In the referendum, 65.1% of voters favoured legalising Assisted Dying compared with 33.7% who were opposed.
The above graph is from the NZ Electoral Commission showing the official results of the End of Life Choice referendum: see full results here
Whilst voters in New Zealand strongly favoured this law change, a vocal minority ran a strong campaign in opposition. This opposition included advocates from the disability community, many of whom had unfounded fears that supporting the End of Life Choice legislation would be used adversely against those who are sick and disabled. The bill was in fact very clear that Assisted Dying would only be allowed to people who meet the following criteria:
- be aged 18 years or over
- be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand
- suffer from a terminal illness that’s likely to end their life within 6 months
- have a significant and ongoing decline in physical capability
- experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased
- be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying.
New Zealand follows Canada who legalised Assisted Dying back in 2016, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia and 10 jurisdictions in the United States, including California, Washington and Oregon. The Republic of Ireland’s Dáil (parliament) is also currently debating a bill which aims to legalise assisted dying.
There is now growing recognition internationally that the right to a dignified death is a fundamental human right. Assisted dying is not about reducing health care costs or pressuring those who are frail, old or disabled to end their life prematurely. It is about allowing those with a terminal illness the choice to die rather than face a period of significant physical decline and suffering before the end of their life. The significant point here is that this is about choice. Those whose faith or beliefs are against assisted dying have nothing to fear from this change as it merely gives choice to those who want assisted dying while still protecting the right to life for those that do not.
In the United Kingdom, opinion polls consistently show that most people support the legalising of assisted dying. In March 2019 a poll commissioned by campaign group My Death, My Decision found that 90% of people in the UK favoured such a law change. Despite support for Assisted Dying in the UK being higher than in New Zealand, to date parliament has shown a reluctance to support assisted dying legislation. In 2014 Lord Falconer introduced an Assisted Dying Bill into the House of Lords which was unsuccessful. One year later in 2015, a similar bill was put forward in the House of Commons by Labour MP Rob Marris which was also defeated. Prior to these attempts, the late Lord Joffe tried unsuccessfully on four separate occasions to introduce bills that would have legalised physician-assisted suicide. In 1997 MP Joe Ashton’s bill to legalise Dr Assisted Dying was defeated, as were attempts in the 1960s and 70s in the House of Lords by Lord Raglan and Baroness Wootten respectively.
New Zealand has a lot in common with British society in terms of culture, politics and societal attitudes. Both are small ‘c’ conservative cultures, but also where the values of compassion and social justice are important. The New Zealand referendum came after years of debate. In 1995 MP Michael Laws introduced an Assisted Dying Bill which was defeated in the second reading. Another attempt was made in 2003 by MP Peter Brown, where the bill was once again defeated in parliament, this time by just two votes. The recent referendum was a compromise by MPs as despite strong public support, parliament remained reluctant to pass this legislation.
In 2020 Lord Falconer has once again put forward a bill to legalise Assisted Dying. The Lords should support this well-drafted bill which would allow those diagnosed with a terminal illness the choice of assisted dying, but like the New Zealand law protects those who do not. Parliament should listen to public opinion and support this law change. But if it does not have the courage to do so, then like in New Zealand, the question should be put to the public in a referendum.