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New Zealanders will be able to have the final say on whether assisted dying should become law in September’s election.
Last November, Parliament passed the End of Life Choice Act by 69-51 votes, sending it to a referendum and putting the decision in the hands of the public.
Here we break down what assisted dying is, what the End of Life Choice Act proposes, and how the referendum will work.
New Zealand lawmakers passed a bill on Wednesday that would legalize euthanasia, paving the way for the public to vote on the issue in a referendum next year.
WHAT IS ASSISTED DYING?
Assisted dying, or euthanasia, is defined in the End of Life Choice Act as a doctor or nurse practitioner giving a person medication to relieve their suffering by bringing on death, or, the taking of medication by a person to relieve their suffering by bringing on death.
In the Act, “medication” means a lethal dose of the drugs used for assisted dying.
To be eligible for assisted dying under the Act, a person must be suffering from a terminal illness that is likely to end their life within six months.
They must have significant and ongoing decline in physical capability, and experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased.
Crucially, they have to be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying – showing they can understand and remember information about it, and have the ability to communicate this decision in some way.
A person would not be eligible if the only reason they give is that they are suffering from a mental disorder or mental illness; have a disability of any kind; or because of their advanced age.
A health practitioner is not allowed to suggest that a person consider assisted dying while providing a health service to them, it must be a call made by the patient.
On September 19, New Zealanders will vote in not just the general election, but two referendums – including whether assisted dying, or euthanasia, should be passed into law.
WHEN IS THE REFERENDUM?
The euthanasia referendum is one of two being carried out on general election day, Saturday, September 19.
The other will ask people if they support the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill.
You will be given a voting paper for the election and a voting paper for the referendums.
If you’re in New Zealand, you will be able to vote when advance voting starts on September 5.
If you’re overseas at the time, you can vote from September 2.
You will get the opportunity to answer 'Yes’ or ‘No’ on election day.
WHAT IS THE QUESTION?
The voting question being asked is: “Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force?”
You can choose one of two answers:
Yes, I support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force.
No, I do not support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force.
“Coming into force” means the Act would start operating as law in New Zealand, 12 months after the final result is announced.
A person would not be eligible for assisted dying simply because they are elderly. People must be suffering from a terminal illness that would end their life within six months.
WHAT WOULD THE BILL ALLOW?
If it does start operating as law in New Zealand, eligible people could start the assisted dying process with their doctor.
In a nutshell, two doctors – the person's doctor and an independent doctor – must agree the patient meets the criteria, including being able to make an informed decision about assisted dying. If either is unsure of the person’s ability to make that decision, a psychiatrist needs to assess the person.
If the person is eligible, they choose a method, date, and time for taking the lethal dose of medication.
At the time the person has chosen, the doctor or nurse practitioner must ask the person if they still choose to take the medication before it is given. The doctor or nurse practitioner must remain with them until they die.
If they change their mind, the medication is taken away.
ACT MP and proponent for the End of Life Choice Bill, David Seymour, at its third and final reading in November 2019.
HOW WOULD IT BE POLICED?
If the law is passed, a number of roles and agencies will be set up within the health sector to oversee the operation of the Act.
This would include the Support and Consultation for End of Life in New Zealand (SCENZ) group, established by the Director-General of Health.
SCENZ would be responsible for making and maintaining a list of doctors, psychiatrists and pharmacists willing to take part in the assisted dying process.
It would also be responsible for preparing standards of care, advising on the required legal and medical procedures and providing practical assistance around the administration of medication.
If the Act became law, Ministry of Health Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield would be responsible for setting up key roles to oversee the law.
An End of Life Review Committee, made up of a medical ethicist, a doctor specialising in end-of-life care and one other health practitioner, would also be appointed by the minister of health.
The committee would consider reports provided by the doctor or nurse practitioner about the assisted death of a person, report to a registrar – a person within the Ministry of Health, appointed by the Director-General – on whether the information complies with the requirements of the Act.
The registrar would check the processes of the Act have been complied with; establish and maintain a register of approved forms and reports received from the review committee and made to the minister.
The registrar would receive and refer complaints to the appropriate authority, such as the Health and Disability Commissioner or Police.
They would also be responsible for providing annual reports to the health minister, who would present them to Parliament.
The majority of New Zealanders will cast their votes on September 19, but advance voting and overseas voting start much earlier.
HOW DOES THE VOTE WORK?
Casting a vote in the referendum is simple.
On your voting paper, vote by placing a tick next to your answer - either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to each referendum question.
WHEN WILL WE KNOW THE OUTCOME?
Although voting takes place on election day, referendum votes will not be counted that night.
Preliminary referendum results will be released by the Electoral Commission on Friday, October 2.
The final, official results will be released on Friday, October 9.
The Act, if passed into law, would allow people with a terminal illness to relieve their suffering through assisted dying.
WHEN WOULD IT COME INTO EFFECT IF PASSED?
If more than 50 per cent of New Zealanders vote “Yes” in the referendum, the End of Life Choice Act will come into force 12 months after the final votes are announced.
If more than 50 per cent of people vote “No”, the Act will not become law.
If the majority vote in opposition to the Act – or there is a tie – and another referendum is not held, the Act will expire on November 16, 2024, five years to the day after it received royal assent.
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