Assisted dying – let’s pay attention to the stats

Assisted dying became legally available on Sunday, the first death may be next month and observers are looking out for the statistics on the new law’s take up.

The End of Life Choice Act means people enduring unbearable suffering from a terminal health condition and have a life expectancy of less than six months may now ask for medical help to end their lives.

Provided those preconditions are met, any person aged 18 and over may request voluntary euthanasia – a situation that will potentially impact thousands of New Zealanders.

Disability advocate Chris Ford has two big concerns. One is that the legislation isn’t broadened to include vulnerable groups.

The other concerns keeping complete records and statistics of those choosing assisted dying.

As regards to the  possibility of the legislation being broadened, Ford says this: it is vital it is not further extended to cover, for example, people with psychosocial disability/mental distress or children and young people under the age of 18.

Both of these extensions have happened in recent years in Belgium and the Netherlands, with people from both groups being helped to die, Ford says.

Those of us opposed to voluntary euthanasia should be on our guard in relation to changes to the legislation, he says.

He points out that some of the Act’s key proponents have vowed to have the law amended at the first available opportunity – even before the Act’s first mandated review is completed in five years’ time.

His other concern is possibly unanswerable. “Will we ever truly know that each and every person who opts to take this path has done so of their own free will?” he wonders.

“I hope that the vast majority of people will have done so without coercion but my fear is that some (including a not disproportionate number of older and disabled people) will be at greater risk of manipulation by well-meaning (and perhaps not so well-meaning) family/whānau, friends, and other networks, meaning that effectively they will have had no choice in the matter.”

Ford says this is why he will be looking at the early statistics of people who have chosen to end their lives to see whether any clear patterns emerge.

“I will be particularly interested to see the age, ethnicity and gender composition of the people who do so,” he says.

Ford will be looking for data about their geographical locations and – most he says importantly for him – whether they self-identify as people who live with pre-existing disabilities/health conditions/impairments which they have had prior to contracting terminal illness.

“I hope the ministry will collate disability data around this too as they are often remiss in doing so when it comes to other health-related data,” he says.

Based on overseas experience, the Ministry of Health estimates about 950 people will apply a year, with up to 350 following through with the option.

The Otago Daily Times reports “It is widely recognised that collecting information on all the whys and wherefores of the process will be important to ensure the Act works as it should.”


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News category: New Zealand, Palmerston.

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