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New Zealanders vote to legalize “assisted dying” in binding referendum

PHOTO CREDITS: AP PHOTO

New Zealanders voted to legalize euthanasia in a binding referendum last week, joining five other countries in legalizing “assisted dying” for suffering medical patients. 

With about 83% of votes counted, New Zealanders endorsed the euthanasia measure with 65% voting in favor and 34% voting against. Parliament passed a bill legalizing euthanasia, called the End of Life Choice Act 2019, last year with a vote of 69-51, though it needed to be ratified with at least 50 percent support in a referendum to come into effect. Now, beginning on Nov. 6 of next year, doctors will be able to legally prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to patients suffering from terminal illnesses likely to end their life within six months.

A second question on the ballot during the Oct. 17 general election — on legalizing recreational marijuana use — was set to fail, according to preliminary results released on Friday. The “No” vote on marijuana was much closer than that of the issue of euthanasia, with 53% voting against legalizing the drug for recreational use and 46% voting in favor. That left open a slight chance the measure could still pass once all special votes were counted this week, although it would require a huge swing. 

Proponents of the cannabis measure expressed frustration with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who had declined to take a position on legalization before the election and revealed only on Friday that she had voted in support of it. 

On euthanasia, though, Ardern’s stance had been clear. Ms. Ardern, who retained the prime ministership with a landslide victory in the general election, had long expressed support for legalization, and the measure passed with 65 percent of the vote. The ballot question had bipartisan backing, with Ardern’s primary opponent in the election, Judith Collins of the center-right National Party, also expressing support. 

The law contains several stipulations for those eligible to receive “assisted dying.” The person must be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident over the age of 18 with a terminal illness “likely to end the person’s life within 6 months”; is in an “advanced state of irreversible decline in physical capability”; and is experiencing “unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person considers tolerable.” They would have to be evaluated by multiple medical professionals, including one from a government-appointed medical practitioner.

Furthermore, doctors and nurses are not allowed to start the conversation about assisted dying, and health practitioners are not obligated to assist people who wish to die if they have a conscientious objection (CNN).

Euthanasia is legal in five other countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada and Colombia. Physician-assisted suicide, in which doctors give patients the means to kill themselves, is legal in Switzerland. Some American states and the Australian state of Victoria have legalized forms of assisted dying. New Zealand has historically taken a conservative approach to drugs — in legislation if not always in practice, said Marta Rychert, a drug policy researcher at Massey University. The result, she said, “shows that it’s difficult to garner public support for quite a radical cannabis law reform.” Dr. Rychert added that the messaging used by proponents, which focused on the health and well-being of New Zealanders, might have been less effective than the economic-focused pitches made by advocates in some American states.

The New Zealand Drug Foundation said the country still must act to reverse a punitive approach to drugs that fell disproportionately on young people and the Indigenous Maori. “Although a majority of New Zealanders did not vote for the proposed model of legalization, the debate has shown a clear public desire for legal change in some form,” the group’s chairman, Tuari Potiki, said in a statement. Half a million “special votes” in the referendum still have to be counted, and official results will not be released until Nov. 6. But Mr. Little said the results were “highly unlikely” to be overturned (NY Times).

The marijuana measure would allow people to buy up to 14 grams (0.5 ounce) a day and grow two plants. It was a non-binding vote, so if voters approved it, legislation would have to be passed to implement it. Ardern had promised to respect the outcome and bring forward the legislation, if it was necessary. Other countries that have legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana include Canada, South Africa, Uruguay, Georgia plus a number of U.S. states.

Proponents of legalizing the drug were frustrated that Ardern wouldn’t reveal how she intended to vote ahead of the Oct. 17 ballot. Many believed an endorsement by Ardern could have boosted support for the measure, but she said she wanted to leave the decision to New Zealanders. Ardern said Friday after the results were released that she had voted in favor of both referendums. Conservative lawmaker Nick Smith, from the opposition National Party, welcomed the preliminary marijuana result. “This is a victory for common sense. Research shows cannabis causes mental health problems, reduced motivation and educational achievement, and increased road and workplace deaths,” he said. “New Zealanders have rightly concluded that legalizing recreational cannabis would normalize it, make it more available, increase its use and cause more harm.”

But liberal lawmaker Chlöe Swarbrick, from the Green Party, said they had long assumed the vote would be close and they needed to wait until the special votes were counted. “We have said from the outset that this would always come down to voter turnout. We’ve had record numbers of special votes, so I remain optimistic,” she said. “New Zealand has had a really mature and ever-evolving conversation about drug laws in this country and we’ve come really far in the last three years.” Proponents had argued the measure would reduce profits for gangs and improve social and legal outcomes for indigenous Maori.

“It is a victory for all New Zealand as we become a more compassionate and humane society,” said lawmaker David Seymour, of the libertarian ACT Party. “Thousands of New Zealanders who might have suffered excruciating deaths will have choice, dignity, control, and autonomy over their own bodies, protected by the rule of law.” But Dr. John Kleinsman, an ethicist for the New Zealand Catholic Bishops, said the vote put vulnerable people on a dangerous path. He said the mere option of euthanasia would be a burden and pressure for many ailing people and their families, as well as for healthcare and religious workers (Breitbart News).

POLITICS EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

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