Recent nationwide polling shows that 80% of New Zealand adults are still confused about what the End of Life Choice Act would legalise.
It’s not about turning off machines.
Respondents were asked, “According to your understanding of the End of Life Choice Act, would it legalise people choosing to have machines turned off that are keeping them alive?” Only 21% knew that this Act would not make it legal to have life support machines turned off. Alarmingly, 45% were unsure and 34% thought that the Act would legalise this choice, when in fact it is already legal.
People can make choices for their future end-of-life care by completing an Advance Care Plan.
Mentally ill people can receive euthanasia if they meet the eligibility criteria.
Only 18% were aware that terminally ill people who meet all the eligibility criteria, but also have depression or another mental illness, would indeed be allowed euthanasia under this Act. About 41% thought that mentally ill people would always be excluded and another 41% were unsure.
The Act states that a person cannot be eligible for a lethal dose when their only reason is mental illness, advanced age or disability. However, the Act would not exclude people who are mentally ill, elderly or disabled if they also have a terminal illness and meet the other eligibility criteria. Even David Seymour seems to be unaware of this fact.
A person doesn’t need to have physical pain to be eligible.
Less than a third (28%) knew that this Act would make euthanasia available to terminally ill people even if they don’t have any physical pain. A third (33%) mistakenly thought that a person would need to have physical pain to qualify and 39% were unsure.
The End of Life Choice Act requires that a person experiences “unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the person considers tolerable” but doesn’t require that this suffering be physical. As Queens Counsel barrister Grant Illingworth explains, “The unbearable suffering may be mental. It may be emotional. It may be aspects of the person’s circumstances that cause them to feel totally desperate and unable to cope.”
A large Australian study found that 53% of people who were imminently dying within hours or days did not experience any pain at all. Only 4% had severe pain. The authors stated that these people had pain that required further attention and that it was at the beginning of the terminal phase. They did not imply that any of these patients had unmanageable pain or that they ended up dying in pain.
The witnesses safeguard was left out.
About 41% of respondents assumed that the Act would require two witnesses when a person signs their euthanasia request in front of the doctor and about 40% were unsure. Only 18% knew that the Act does not actually include this safeguard.
Parliament did not discuss why the witnesses safeguard was left out of the law New Zealand is voting on, despite the fact that it has been established overseas for 22 years: It is included in the assisted dying laws of Canada; Victoria and Western Australia; and nine US states.
In these countries, two people need to witness a person signing their written request in front of the first doctor. The witnesses need to confirm that the person is of sound mind and is not being pressured by the doctor or anyone else at that time. This doctor is not allowed to be one of the witnesses.
A common misunderstanding is that the “independent medical practitioner” in the End of Life Choice Act is “an independent witness”. However, the role of this doctor in the proposed New Zealand law is not comparable to the role of the two witnesses in overseas laws.
In the Act, the independent medical practitioner (second doctor) only needs to confirm whether the person meets the eligibility criteria and is not allowed to be present when the person confirms their request in writing. The second doctor is not required to “ensure the person expresses their wish free from pressure” (section 11) or to stop the process when pressure is suspected (section 24). Only the first doctor is required to do these things.
Calling voters to read widely
Voters are encouraged to consider not only what is included in the End of Life Choice Act, but also what is missing from this Act, compared to overseas assisted dying laws. Almost 200 lawyers have signed an open statement warning New Zealand against this particular Act. The Government’s summary is biased and insufficient.
The poll was conducted by Curia Market Research on 30 September. Respondents were randomly selected and contacted by landline or mobile phone. The maximum sampling error (for a result of 50%) is ±4.9% at the 95% confidence level.