What is euthanasia?
The origin of the 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 occurs when the person dying has not asked to be euthanased. Sometimes referred to as 'assisted dying', voluntary euthanasia occurs when a person assists someone who has requested help to die.
Euthanasia, including voluntary euthanasia, was illegal in New Zealand until 2021, when the latest of several attempts to change the law succeeded.
A Death with Dignity Bill initiated by Peter Brown, deputy leader of New Zealand First, in 2003 was defeated by two votes. In 2017 David Seymour, ACT Party MP, introduced an 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.
Parliament passed an amended version of this bill in 2019. It came into force in November 2021 after receiving majority support in a referendum held at the same time as the 2020 general election. By 30 June 2023, there had been 482 assisted deaths under the provisions of the End of Life Choice Act.
Arguments for euthanasia
Those in favour of voluntary euthanasia argue for the right of individuals to die with dignity, and assert that the person concerned is best able to assess their quality of life and make decisions about whether 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 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 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 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 an account of 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 a charge of inciting and procuring suicide and was sentenced to home detention.
Lecretia Seales, a terminally ill Wellington lawyer, brought a case 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 it. She also argued that under the Bill of Rights Act she had the right to access assistance in ending her life. Seales died naturally on the day the High Court released its judgement. The judge refused to issue the declarations she sought, but made several statements suggesting that Parliament consider the arguments she had made. Her partner wrote a book (Lecretia’s choice) about her struggle for legal assisted death.