Opinion: Let's go no further with voluntary euthanasia

6:30 pm on 21 November 2022

By Chris Ford*

File photo.

New Zealand marked its first year of voluntary euthanasia on 7 November. Photo: AFP

Opinion - On 7 November, New Zealand marked its first year as a country with legalised voluntary euthanasia.

As of 30 September - 10 months after that landmark date - 214 people had opted for assisted death in Aotearoa. That represented an average of nearly five New Zealanders per week who had taken that route over the first 46 weeks since the legislation went into effect. I admit that as an opponent of assisted dying, the number was less than I had expected. Yet, even the Ministry of Health forecasts that the number of people opting for voluntary euthanasia will likely increase over time.

The fact that the number of people opting for euthanasia under current laws could increase didn't stop key advocates, including Act Party leader David Seymour, from calling for the law's extension to cover more people with 'grievous and irremediable conditions' than the original legislation he sponsored had called for.

As I and other advocates from the disability community have argued in the past, the 'grievous and irremediable conditions' provision was too broad and posed great risks to disabled people living with non-terminal impairments and health conditions.

Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and researcher.

Chris Ford is a Dunedin-based freelance writer and researcher. Photo: Supplied / Chris Ford

Already, the dangers of an expanded law are being witnessed in Canada.

Just within the last week, Canadian media outlets have reported that Denise, a 32-year-old Toronto woman living with a rare condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, who has engaged in a fruitless seven-year search for affordable housing to accommodate her need to live in spaces where she would not need to use cleaning chemicals commonly used in households, like laundry detergents and air fresheners, which aggravate her condition, has moved to finalise her application for the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) scheme, the Canadian equivalent of our End of Life Choice Act.

Given the lack of affordable housing to suit her needs, she told Canadian media outlet CTV that after gaining widespread support and donated funds from people to assist her housing search following her story first coming to light this year, she had still not found suitable accommodation, had almost run out of money and is now strongly veering towards euthanasia.

Shockingly, Denise said that applying for assisted death was an easier process than what she had experienced in trying to find housing.

Denise's example illustrates one of the primary arguments that disabled people opposed to euthanasia have long used.

That is, that instead of society removing the barriers to living a good life for disabled people, they implicitly encourage disabled people to think about opting out of life altogether instead of being fully supported to live a good life, especially if they live with complex impairments or conditions.

Canada's assisted dying laws were already more relaxed than New Zealand's and - following a Supreme Court decision and subsequent legislation passed through their federal parliament - are even more so, meaning that people with a non-terminal health condition like Denise can successfully apply for assisted death there.

That's why I say that Aotearoa's current assisted dying law should stay as it is - effectively, it should go no further and not be extended.

However, I would favour making tweaks to ensure that its provisions were strengthened to prevent an un-necessary death from occurring.

For example, a seven-day cooling off period following the successful granting of an application before any person could undertake supported dying, so that they were sure within themselves that they wanted to proceed with it.

Another provision I would add is the need for statistics to be collated which show the number of people who self-identify as disabled people whom have been found to have a terminal condition separate from their existing impairment/condition which means that they have less than six months to live and come within the ambit of the law. This would allow the monitoring of the number of disabled people who, hopefully voluntarily and of their own free will, have decided to opt for voluntary euthanasia if they become terminally ill. Further, it would give an idea as to the numbers of disabled people who do so and any patterns which emerge over time.

I have also come to the view that now the voluntary euthanasia genie is out of the legal bottle, it would be hard to put it back in again. I note the significant two-thirds support it received at the 2020 referendum held in conjunction with the general election. To the best of my knowledge, while no polling has been carried out on the topic for almost a year, I would dare say that support for the current law is the same as it was back then, if not actually increased slightly.

I don't think we should wait for the legally mandated five-year review for government to call together proponents from both the pro and anti-euthanasia camps to engage in vigourous and constructive dialogue to come up with a consensus amended law which fixes the weaknesses of the current legislation and strengthens its protections, so that it really meets the needs of the people whom it was designed to be there for - people diagnosed with a terminal illness and whom are expected to live less than six months.

I would view any such development - a promise not to expand the current law in return for a negotiated political and societal consensus on the issue of assisted dying - as being the best way to address what is a complex, fraught and divisive issue for all of us, irrespective of where we sit upon it.

* Chris Ford is a writer with extensive knowledge of the disability sector.

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