What is euthanasia?
The origin of this word is the Greek eu thanaos meaning ‘good death’ or to die well without pain. Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending the life of another person by non-violent means. Involuntary euthanasia is when the person dying has not requested to be euthanased. Sometimes referred to as 'assisted dying', voluntary euthanasia is when a person assists someone who has requested help to die.
Euthanasia, including voluntary euthanasia, is illegal in New Zealand. However, there have been attempts to change the law.
The Death with Dignity Bill was initiated by Peter Brown, deputy leader of New Zealand First, in 2003. It was defeated by two votes. In June 2017 David Seymour, ACT Party MP, introduced the End of Life Choice Bill designed to give people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition the option of requesting assisted dying. In 2018 the Justice Select Committee considered submissions on this legislation. Parliament is due to vote on the Bill in late 2018.
Arguments for euthanasia
Those in favour of voluntary euthanasia argue for the right of individuals to die with dignity and argue that the person concerned is best able to assess their quality of life and make decisions about whether they want to go on living.
Arguments against euthanasia
Objections to euthanasia are that it devalues life and undermines human dignity. Some believe that it also breaks religious laws. The New Zealand Medical Association considers that voluntary euthanasia is illegal and unethical, but supports patients' right to pain relief. It argues that the proper provision of such relief, even when it may hasten the death of the patient, is not unethical.
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand (VES) advocates for voluntary euthanasia and pro-euthanasia campaigners such as Australian Philip Nitschke have made frequent visits to New Zealand to talk to VES members.
EXIT International is an Australian based non-governmental organisations that also advocates for the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. It has chapters in Auckland, Wellington and Nelson. Members argue that control over one’s life and death is a fundamental civil right.
There have been highly publicised New Zealand prosecutions related to euthanasia, including the trial of Lesley Martin, who was convicted in 2004 of the attempted murder of her terminally ill mother, Joy Martin, in 1999. She spent seven months in prison. Charges of murder and attempted murder were laid after she published a book about giving her mother an overdose of morphine and smothering her.
Sean Davison was initially charged with attempted murder in 2011 for assisting the death of his mother. Later he pleaded guilty to the charge of inciting and procuring suicide and was sentenced to home detention.
Lucretia Seales, a terminally ill Wellington lawyer with a brain tumour, brought a case to the High Court in 2015 arguing for her right to assisted death. She wanted the High Court to issue a declaration that administered aid in dying is not unlawful under the Crimes Act when a competent adult consents to the administered aid. If she was successful her GP would not be prosecuted if they assisted her death. She also argued that under the Bill of Rights Act 1962, she had the right to access assistance in ending her life. Seales died naturally on 5 June 2015, the same day the High Court released its judgement. The judge refused to issue the declarations she sought, but made several statements indicating that parliament should consider the arguments she made about the rights of terminally ill people to choose assisted death. Her partner wrote a book (Lucretia’s Choice) about her struggle for legal assisted death.