Assisted dying law in New Zealand should be relaxed to remove a requirement that a patient has only six months to live, the law’s architect says.
Act Party leader David Seymour said that a year after coming into force, the End of Life Choice Act was working well and that opponents of the law change had “melted away”.
“The figures overwhelmingly show a law that is working. People can and do get through the process to become eligible for assisted dying, some change their mind, some are assessed as not eligible. That is what we’d expect if the law was working.”
Voluntary euthanasia was legalised exactly a year ago, and so far 214 patients have an assisted death. In all, 596 people have applied and 294 people have been deemed eligible.
A total of 120 people were turned down because they were not eligible.
Seymour noted that a third of the ineligible patients were declined because they didn’t meet the criteria of having a terminal illness likely to end their lives within six months.
“That may be because they are found not to have a terminal illness at all, but I suspect at least some if not many have an illness that is terminal but without a certain timeframe,” he said.
Seymour said he agreed to the six-month requirement to gain the support of the Green Party to pass the bill.
“I fear that compromise is leading to people such as my namesake David Seymour of Whangarei, Rachel Rypma of Christchurch, and Frank Sanft of Remuera miss out on having choice and control, even though their long suffering is just as real as those with a more immediate terminal condition.”
Seymour’s original bill would have allowed non-terminal patients with “grievous and irremediable conditions” to get access to voluntary euthanasia.
Some groups felt that definition was too broad, and raised concerns it could make assisted dying available to disabled people or mental health patients.
The amended law, which was voted on in a public referendum, made it explicit that applicants could not get access to assisted dying on the basis of disability or mental illness alone.
Seymour would argue for the criteria in the law to be broadened to that in his original bill when it comes up for review in 2024.
The Act MP also expressed concern that one in six applicants had died of underlying conditions before they were able to get an assisted death.
“Given applicants need to have a terminal illness to apply, there will always be some people in this position.
“But, it is worth asking whether there are unnecessary delays in the process. Anecdotally, it can take two months to get through the entire process, and that is longer than necessary to observe all the safeguards in the law.”
Doctors have told the Herald that there is a shortage of medical professionals who can carry out assessments in some parts of the country, which could be contributing to delays in applications. They have also noted that the ministry has expedited applications, where possible, when an applicant was close to death.
Disability advocates were among those who raised concerns about assisted dying in New Zealand, in particular the original bill proposed by Seymour, which they said would lessen the value of human life and possibly reduce the standard of care for disabled people.
New Zealand Disability Support Network CEO Peter Reynolds said a survey of the organisation’s membership found no one had raised any issues about the End of Life Choice Act since it came into force.
“I note earlier concerns were focused on the absence of protections in the legislation. I think the reality suggests those risks are minor at best. The process is sufficiently robust that the possibility of these risks is well-mitigated,” he said.
Reynolds said that despite the difference between disability and chronic or ongoing health conditions, the definitions used by the Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation were confusing and could easily be interchanged.
“If these definitions were more robust, I believe it would further distance disabled people from the impact of this Act and (quite probably) increase interest in the option for those with a chronic health condition.”