Opinion Former Article

New Zealand votes to legalise assisted dying in binding referendum

Preliminary results from New Zealand’s referendum on assisted dying show a clear majority have supported the right to die. Humanists UK has congratulated campaigners in New Zealand for the decisive victory, and have called on UK politicians to take note of the result and bring about similar legislative change here.

According to initial results 65.2% of New Zealand voters backed proposals which will now allow doctors to help adults who are terminally ill to end their life, provided they are of sound mind and have a settled and uncoerced wish.

Ahead of the results, opinion polling had indicated that between 60-70% of the public agreed assisted dying should be legal. The fact that the final result was in line with this underscores the accuracy of public opinion polls on assisted dying. Polling suggests that popular support in the UK is higher still, with one recently finding 88% of the public favouring a change in the law for the terminally ill and incurably suffering.

The final, official results of New Zealand’s referendum will be released on 6 November and a change in the law is expected to come into effect a year after that date.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘This is a hugely significant moment in the campaign for assisted dying, as the result of this referendum in New Zealand shows a clear, popular demand for a change in the law in a country with values very similar to our own. Further, although critics have often alleged that support for a change in the law falls away when people learn more about it, the results from New Zealand clearly show this isn’t the case.

‘Opinion polling has consistently shown that assisted dying for both the terminally ill and incurably suffering is even more popular in the UK than it is in New Zealand. Few issues have a stronger popular mandate. It is now time for MPs to recognise the strength of public support by taking action to change the law. An important place to start would be by reviewing the evidence on assisted dying and we urge MPs to follow in New Zealand’s footsteps by launching a parliamentary inquiry.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

More about New Zealand’s referendum

A nationwide binding referendum on whether to enact the End of Life Choice Act 2019 was held in New Zealand on 17 October. The referendum followed after a parliamentary inquiry reviewed the evidence on assisted dying and New Zealand’s Parliament subsequently voted 60-59 in favour of the Act subject to a referendum.

Voters were asked whether they supported the proposed law or not and preliminary results show a majority of 65.2% to 33.8% of voters supported it.

Under the proposed law doctors will be able to assist someone with six or fewer months left to live to end their life, if they are 18 years old, a citizen/resident of New Zealand, experiencing unbearable suffering that cannot be eased and an ongoing decline in physical capability, and provided they are able to make an informed decision.

The option of an assisted death would be subject to safeguards including a requirement for any request to be made in writing, a requirement for an independent doctor to verify an individual’s eligibility (as well as a psychiatrist specialist confirming their capacity if there were any doubts), and an oversight body review to ensure the law was complied with.

The official results will be released on 6 November and if more than 50% vote yes in the referendum the End of Life Choice Act will come into force 12 months after this date.

Wider developments

The UK Parliament last voted on assisted dying in 2015, rejecting by 330 against to 118 a private members’ bill to legalise assisted dying for those who are terminally ill and likely to die within six months.

Last month, in one of the largest surveys of medical opinion ever, half of doctors said they personally supported changing the law on assisted dying. In the British Medical Association members’ survey on assisted dying, 59% of doctors also felt that, if the law is to change, then patients with physical conditions causing intolerable suffering which cannot be relieved should be able to access assisted dying; whereas only 24% thought that only patients suffering from a condition likely to cause death in six months or less should be eligible.

Recently, the families and living claimants of most of the previous assisted dying cases came together for the first time, to urge the UK Secretary of State for Justice to instigate a review into assisted dying or call on the UK Parliament to conduct one, similar to the process which began New Zealand’s path to legislative reform.

Assisted dying is now permitted for terminally ill and incurably suffering people in Canada, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. It is also permitted specifically for terminally ill people in Colombia, ten US jurisdictions, and the Australian state of Victoria, and will soon become legal in Western Australia. Following these results, it is also expected to become legal in New Zealand. An assisted dying bill for the terminally ill and incurably suffering is also currently going through the Dáil in the Republic of Ireland.

Read more about nearly 90% of the public supporting assisted dying.

Read more about our campaign to legalise assisted dying.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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