Hospice New Zealand has applied for an urgent court hearing on whether it can conscientiously object to assisted dying.

It comes before New Zealanders are due to have their final say on whether or not to legalise euthanasia - a referendum scheduled take place at the same time as the general election on September 19.

The application - lodged by Hospice on April 9 - asks the High Court to provide rulings on the legal meaning of certain aspects of the End of Life Choice Act 2019, including:

• Whether an organisation such as a hospice can conscientiously object to Assisted Dying and operate a "euthanasia-free" service.


• Whether a district health board or other funding agency can decline to fund or contract with an organisation if it does not agree to provide assisted dying services.

• Whether the Act's mandatory obligations on a health practitioner override the ethical, clinical or professional judgments of that practitioner and their obligations under the Code of Health and Disability Consumers' Rights.

• Whether a health practitioner may exercise a right of conscientious objection on the basis that they hold as a core value that they must not act in a way that is contrary to their ethical, clinical or professional judgment and obligations.

A Hospice NZ spokeswoman said the application was necessary in order for the charitable organisation to be able to provide accurate advice to its members in advance of the referendum.

"Accordingly, Hospice New Zealand has requested an urgent hearing before the Court."

The Attorney-General, as respondent, requested that other medical and nursing organisations should have the opportunity to apply for intervener status on this matter, if they wish.

In order not to delay a hearing, Hospice New Zealand's counsel agreed that eight organisations should be served with the proceedings, while emphasising they have no obligation to appear if they do not wish to do so.

The End of Life Choice Act passed in Parliament by 69 votes to 51 in November.

To gain support for legalising euthanasia, Act Party leader David Seymour agreed to leave the final decision to the public in a binding referendum. Photo / File
To gain support for legalising euthanasia, Act Party leader David Seymour agreed to leave the final decision to the public in a binding referendum. Photo / File

The bill gives New Zealanders the option of legally requesting help to end their lives - either by doing so themselves (euthanasia) or with the help of a doctor (assisted dying).

To be eligible, they have to be 18 years or older, a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, and suffer from a terminal illness that is likely to end their life within six months.

There are further hurdles for eligibility. They need to be in "an advanced state of irreversible decline in physical capability", experiencing unbearable suffering "that cannot be relieved in a manner that they consider tolerable", and be competent to make an informed decision about dying.

In response to concerns that the threshold was too broad, the law now explicitly says a person cannot be eligible for euthanasia on the basis of age, mental illness, or disability alone.

Patients will need the approval of two doctors, each with at least five years' experience. One can be their GP and the other must be independent. If either has doubts about their competence, a third opinion must be sought from a psychiatrist.

Unlike other euthanasia regimes overseas, a person does not need sworn witness statements from family members about their competence. There is also no requirement to discuss it with family or friends, though doctors must encourage them to.

Doctors can opt out of the process, but must advise the patient of their right to contact an official registry to get the name of another doctor who will be willing to discuss it.

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If the two doctors give the patient the green light, the person then chooses a time and date to end their life, whether they will do it themselves or assisted, and the method (ingested or injected).

A person cannot write an advance directive that they want an assisted death at a later date.

If at any point a doctor suspects a person is being pressured, they have to stop the process.

The euthanasia regime will include a registry of willing doctors and a review committee which will report back to government and deal with any complaints.