New Zealanders have voted to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill people, in a victory for campaigners who say people suffering extreme pain should be given a choice over how and when to bring their life to a close.
The decision on whether to legalise euthanasia appeared as a referendum question on the 17 October general election ballot paper, alongside a second referendum question on whether to legalise cannabis – which did not succeed, according to preliminary results.
The results of the euthanasia referendum are binding and will see the act come into effect 12 months from the final results – on 6 November 2021. Assisted dying will be administered by the Ministry of Health.
The referendum results announced do not include an estimated 480,000 special votes, including overseas ballots, so the final outcome will not be confirmed until 6 November. But with such strong support, the decision is not expected to change.
The referendum is binding and the law is expected to come into effect in November 2021.
It will see New Zealand join a small group of countries, including the Netherlands and Canada, which allow euthanasia for terminally ill people.
This has left cannabis supporters hoping special votes may be able to tip the outcome, but they would need to be overwhelmingly in favour – an outcome seen as slim.
For years support for euthanasia has hovered around the 60-70% mark in polls, with widespread backing across the political spectrum, from prime minister Jacinda Ardern to opposition leader Judith Collins.
The vote makes New Zealand the seventh country in the world to legalise assisted dying. It was a “momentous day” for the country, said campaigner Mary Panko.
“It’s now clear what we have known for decades that Kiwis want, and have always wanted, the right to die on their own terms,” said Panko.
“One day New Zealanders will shake their heads in amazement that the basic human right to say ‘no’ to intolerable suffering ever had to be debated in this country … now because of the passing of this Act our lives as well as our deaths will be immeasurably better.”
The End of Life Choice Act was passed by parliament in 2019 after years of heated parliamentary debate and a record number of public submissions.
But there was a proviso that it would first be put to a referendum, only coming into force if more than 50% of voters ticked “yes”.
There are a number of criteria a person must meet to ask for assisted dying. These include:
- suffering from a terminal illness that’s likely to end their life within six months
- showing a significant decline in physical capability
- being able to make an informed decision about assisted dying
The legislation authorises a doctor or nurse to administer or prescribe a lethal dose of medication to be taken under their supervision if all the conditions are met.
The law also says a person cannot be eligible for assisted dying on the basis of advanced age, mental illness, or disability alone.
Countries to allow euthanasia
The referendum result in New Zealand will be closely watched by advocates for and against assisted dying throughout the world.
By voting “yes” the country is joining a small group of nations and territories that have passed similar legislation.
Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, while assisted suicide is permitted in Switzerland.
A number of states in the United States and the Australian state of Victoria have also made assisted dying legal.
Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a life to relieve suffering, while assisted suicide is the act of deliberately assisting another person to kill themselves. In contrast to euthanasia and assisted suicide, assisted dying would apply to terminally ill people only.