Two thirds of Kiwi nurses and a third of doctors support legalising assisted dying after witnessing "many undignified and frankly awful deaths", a new report has found.
The study on the views of New Zealand's doctors and nurses towards assisted dying (AD), published in today's New Zealand Medical Journal, found 67 per cent of nurses would be willing to help patients end their life.
The results are in line with a University of Auckland research survey, published in the Medical Journal earlier this year, where two thirds of the nearly 16,000 surveyed were in favour of assisted dying.
Today's Medical Journal survey listed several common reasons for supporting legal AD.
Many respondents' views discussed a person's right to an autonomous decision to end their life, philosophical beliefs about personal dignity and to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering, and professional or personal experiences.
Nurses and doctors in favour of assisted dying
"As a nurse I have lost count of the number of very elderly patients who, faced with a
lingering end of life, have said they wished they could hasten the process rather than
drag it out in a manner which they felt compromised their dignity and comfort," one nurse said.
"The medical profession has lost sight of the fact that people have a natural lifespan and
try to keep some patients alive at no benefit to those patients," they continued.
Another nurse commented: "Everyone has a right to self-determination. I do not believe that the medicalised healthcare system should be able to override this right. People should be able to live and die on their own terms, according to their own personal and cultural values."
A doctor wrote: he had witnessed "many undignified and frankly awful deaths over the past several years" while working in several hospitals.
"A lot of what we do is cruel at times [despite best intentions] and can cause a lot of pain for very little benefit [if any]," they said.
Nurses and doctors not in favour of assisted dying
The survey also found the most common reasons for respondents opposing AD was a belief it was not a "proper role" for health practitioners.
Other reasons included the belief vulnerable people would be pressured to end their lives prematurely, a belief in the adequacy of good palliative care, and moral/ethical (non-religious) objections to legal AD.
"I don't believe legally assisted dying is necessary, as patients should be able to receive high quality palliative care which includes withdrawal from treatment and high doses of sedation and analgesia to assist in a comfortable, humane death," one nurse commented.
One nurse's explanation read: "[I] have cared for dying people in a variety of organisations and situations and feel that good palliative care will enhance the quality of their [and their families] lives and death. This has been proven and supported by research. It is society's attitude toward death that needs to change; death is a normal part of life and needs to be approached as this."
Another wrote people "are born, live and die" and to "take away the process is to rob humanity of growing in courage and spiritual potential".
One nurse simply said, "healthcare professionals enter the profession to care for people, not to end their lives".
Nurses: Law needs to robustly protect us
New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) nursing and professional services manager Jane MacGeorge said its primary focus was any law on the sensitive issue needs to robustly protect nurses.
The NZNO accepted there was a likelihood legislation will be introduced for assisted dying and is preparing for such circumstances.
During the past two decades, more than a dozen jurisdictions internationally have legalised assisted dying.
However, in a position statement sent to the Herald, the NZNO said it "can no longer take a neutral stance in relation to AD".
"NZNO has chosen to take a principled approach to AD, and advocate for individuals to have the option or choice of AD. Accordingly, our concern is focused on the impact of legislative changes that may affect the day-to-day practice of nurses who work with dying people."
Today's Medical Journal study also found a little more than a third (37 per cent) of Kiwi doctors were in favour of legalising AD.
"In contrast, 58 per cent of doctors and 29 cent of nurses 'strongly' or 'mostly' disagreed with legalising AD. That is, respondents tended to hold clear, and polarised, views on the topic, with only 4-5 per cent of doctors and nurses answering 'not sure'," the survey found.
While medically assisted dying is not legal in New Zealand, a Parliamentary Health Committee is investigating the issue in response to a petition presented to Parliament by Maryan Street.
The committee will investigate public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation which would permit medically-assisted dying in the event of a "terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable".
More than 21,000 written submissions were received, with the majority opposed to assisted dying legalisation.
The results from today's Medical Journal report stemmed from an October and November 2015 online survey to key New Zealand medical and nursing professional bodies (including Australasian bodies).
There were a total of 969 survey respondents, and the study reports on the 772 responses identifiable as those of a doctor (298) or nurse (474). There were 197 who did not complete the demographic questions.
The survey was anonymous and was approved by the University of Auckland Human
Participants Ethics Committee prior to dissemination.