New Zealanders have voted to legalise euthanasia for those with a terminal illness, in a landslide victory for campaigners who say anyone suffering extreme pain should be given a choice over how and when to bring their life to a close.
The decision on whether to legalise euthanasia appeared as a referendum question on the 17 October general election ballot paper, alongside a second referendum question on whether to legalise cannabis – which did not succeed.
The results of the euthanasia referendum are binding and will see the act come into effect 12 months from the final results – on 6 November 2021. Assisted dying will be administered by the Ministry of Health.
Preliminary results announced today by the electoral commission saw 65.2% of eligible voters ticked “yes” to legalising euthanasia, with 33.8% ticking “no”.
Only 46.1 % of New Zealanders voted to legalise cannabis, while 53.1% voted no, meaning the legislation would not proceed to parliament.
For years support for euthanasia has hovered around the 60-70% mark in polls, with widespread backing across the political spectrum, from prime minister Jacinda Ardern to opposition leader Judith Collins.
The vote makes New Zealand only the seventh country in the world to legalise assisted dying, and it was a “momentous day” for the country, said campaigner Mary Panko.
“It’s now clear what we have known for decades that Kiwis want, and have always wanted, the right to die on their own terms,” said Panko.
“One day New Zealanders will shake their heads in amazement that the basic human right to say ‘no’ to intolerable suffering ever had to be debated in this country … now because of the passing of this Act our lives as well as our deaths will be immeasurably better.”
The referendum follows the passing of the End of Life Choice Act in parliament in 2019. The act would allow those with a terminal illness to apply to terminate their life. Although it passed it was only to be brought into force if more than 50% of voters ticked “yes” on the referendum ballot – which preliminary results indicated they did.
The act outlines criteria for who can apply to end their life, including that they be aged 18 or over, are New Zealand citizens, are suffering from a terminal illness that will end their life within six months, “have a significant and ongoing decline in physical capability”, are “enduring unbearable suffering that cannot be eased” and are in a position to make an “informed decision” about their death.
Those suffering mental illness or decline would not be eligible, nor would those applying solely on the basis of “advanced age” or a disability. Two doctors – one independent – would have to sign off on the decision, with a psychiatrist called in if either doctor has any doubts.
ACT party MP David Seymour, who sponsored the bill, has been a tireless campaigner for euthanasia, saying New Zealand has steadily become “decades” behind the most progressive countries in the world.
“I think it’s time New Zealand moved towards being a more compassionate and tolerant society,” Seymour told the Guardian.
“People continue to suffer in ways that are traumatic. I don’t want to have to suffer on to adhere to the morality of someone else. They’ve got their own body if they want to have a ghastly death.”
While the results of the euthanasia referendum are binding, the cannabis issue was not, meaning no matter the outcome the government would still need to debate the issue and pass policy through parliament.
In the lead-up to the October election polls showed a country divided; with support for legalising cannabis veering between 30-50%.
Voters were asked to decide whether they want to pass a bill that would legalise cannabis and regulate how it is used and sold. This would include producing and selling fresh and dried cannabis, including plants and seeds – for people over 20 years old. The change would impose more stringent restrictions than the rules around sales of alcohol and tobacco.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly refused to state her position on cannabis but said she would reveal her vote once the official results were made public.
Ardern recently said she has used cannabis “ a very long time ago”.
Former Labour prime minister, Helen Clark, said cannabis prohibition “doesn’t work” and should be abandoned, a position echoed by many leading public health professionals.
Cannabis is New Zealand’s most commonly used illicit drug, and the latest New Zealand Health Survey found that 15%, or 590,000 New Zealand adults used cannabis in the past 12 months.
Māori account for 16% of New Zealand’s population and are shown to be disproportionately affected by New Zealand’s drug laws, facing three times as many arrests and prosecutions for possession of cannabis than non-Māori.