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Tue, 1 December 2020

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New Zealand to legalise assisted dying after overwhelming referendum victory

Dignity in Dying

5 min read Partner content

Interim results show huge margin of victory, with 65.2% of Kiwis supporting End of Life Choice Act

NZ to become latest Commonwealth country to legalise assisted dying, putting more pressure on UK to grasp the nettle

New Zealand will next year legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent citizens, according to the results of the country’s recent nation-wide referendum. An overwhelming majority of the public (65.2%) voted ‘Yes’ in support of the End of Life Choice Act, according to preliminary referendum results released today. The Bill was approved by Parliament in 2019 and will become law within a year with the public’s backing.

Final results will be released next week (Friday 6 November 2020). Voting closed on 17 October 2020 and took place alongside the country’s general election and a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis.

The End of Life Choice Act would enable terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life to request assistance from a medical professional to end their life at a time and place of their choosing – a model supported by 84% of the British public.

The Rt Hon Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, has backed the ‘Yes’ vote alongside former Deputy Prime Minister the Hon Sir Michael Cullen, who is living with terminal cancer.

Helen Clark said, “The central objective of the End of Life Choice Act is to offer the option of assisted dying to terminally ill New Zealanders who meet the criteria set out in the Act. Under our present laws, they have had to suffer against their wishes. The Act will enable them to determine how, when, and where they die.

“Evidence from overseas shows that similar legislation can enable people to live better as they are dying - whether or not they choose this option - in addition to easing the deaths of those who do and providing protection to the most vulnerable in our society. Having examined this evidence and looked back on my 27.5 years of parliamentary experience, I am confident that enacting this law is the safe, compassionate and right thing to do.”

New Zealand will now join the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia and 10 jurisdictions across the United States, including California, Washington, and New Jersey in providing safeguarded choice at the end of life for its dying citizens. Earlier this month members of Ireland’s Dáil voted to progress a Dying with Dignity bill to committee stage, meaning it will now undergo pre-legislative scrutiny by one of the select committees.

These developments come amid growing calls for an inquiry into the UK’s blanket ban on assisted dying, which parliamentarians will discuss at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life on Tuesday 3 November 2020. MPs and Peers will hear from David Gauke (former Justice Secretary), Professor Paul Cosford (Emeritus Medical Director of Public Health England), David Seymour (New Zealand MP and architect of the End of Life Choice Act) and Helen Clark (former Prime Minister of New Zealand).

Earlier this month the results of the largest ever survey of British doctors’ views on assisted dying revealed a dramatic shift in opinion, with half of doctors personally supporting a change in the law (50%) plus overwhelming support for a change to the British Medical Association’s current stance of opposition to an assisted dying law (61%).

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said, “This latest poll suggests that New Zealand could soon join a growing international trend towards true choice at the end of life, one in which the UK is increasingly an outlier. A safeguarded assisted dying law is the hallmark of a liberal, compassionate society, the lack of which is a stain on our country’s reputation.  

“We know that terminally ill Brits have ended their own lives in traumatic circumstances because they have been unable to get to Dignitas during the pandemic. Coronavirus is proving what we have long known, that banning assisted dying does not protect people; it merely drives the practice overseas and underground with devastating effects on British families. The need for a safeguarded, compassionate assisted dying law for the UK is more urgent than ever.

“Cross-party Parliamentarians, Police and Crime Commissioners, interfaith leaders and senior figures in the medical profession are increasingly recognising that the ban on assisted dying is simply not working, and have joined Dignity in Dying’s calls for an inquiry into the UK’s current laws. Parliament must launch a review of this cruel, outdated legislation as a matter of urgency; not in spite of the pandemic, but because of it.”

Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life, said, “The pandemic has exacerbated even further the suffering of terminally ill Brits and their families under the UK’s ban on assisted dying, making it more pressing than ever that we re-examine these laws. Parliamentarians in Ireland, New Zealand, Australia and the US have examined the evidence and concluded that safe, compassionate assisted dying legislation can and should be implemented. Are we really to accept that the UK is so different?

“These results show the huge public support for assisted dying in New Zealand, a result I am sure would be the case here in the UK. Despite the legitimate concerns over changing the law, the people of New Zealand have given their support to a new law that we should be seeking to replicate for our own citizens, granting the people of the UK the right to a peaceful and dignified death.”

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