Euthanasia referendum explained: Everything you need to know about the End of Life Choice Bill decision

Kiwis will get the chance to vote on an issue later this year that has divided the country for decades: whether euthanasia should be legalised in New Zealand.

The issue of assisted dying has been keenly debated for some time - but now, after years of work by ACT Party leader David Seymour, New Zealanders will finally get their say in September.

Here's everything you need to know about our upcoming End of Life Choice referendum.

What is euthanasia?

Euthanasia is the act of intentionally ending someone's life, usually to relieve suffering.

It is currently illegal in New Zealand, and is considered "aiding and abetting suicide" under Section 179 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961.

Those who commit the offence of encouraging or helping someone commit suicide can face serious punishments, such as 14 years' prison if someone tries to or succeeds in ending their life, or three years' jail if they don't try.

What is a referendum?

In New Zealand, a referendum is a public vote on a particular question.

Referenda can be initiated by a citizen or by the Government. In the case of the euthanasia referendum, it is the Government who has initiated it.

What's this referendum about exactly?

The referendum is a vote on whether the End of Life Choice Act 2019 should become part of New Zealand's legislation.

The result of the vote will determine if voluntary euthanasia, when approved by two doctors, becomes legal for those with a terminal illness and less than six months left to live.

The exact wording of the question is: "Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force?"

The referendum is a vote on whether the End of Life Choice Act 2019 should become part of New Zealand's legislation.
The referendum is a vote on whether the End of Life Choice Act 2019 should become part of New Zealand's legislation. Photo credit: Newshub.

Kiwis will be able to answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question. The Act will only come into effect if more than 50 percent of voters in the referendum vote 'yes'.

If the majority vote 'yes', the law will come into force 12 months after the date the final votes are announced.

Referendum votes will not be counted on election night, the Government says. Preliminary referendum results will be released by the Electoral Commission on October 2, with official results released a week later on October 9.

How did the referendum come about?

This referendum was announced after ACT Party leader David Seymour entered the End of Life Choice Act into the Member's Bill ballot in October 2015.

The Bill passed three readings - in December 2017, June 2019 and November 2019 - allowing a binding referendum on the issue to be held.

New Zealand's laws dictate the Government must pass legislation to enable a referendum to be held, unless the referendum is conducted by postal vote. The wording of the referendum question is decided as part of the legislative process.

MPs have proposed similar Bills on three occasions in the past -  the Death with Dignity Bills of 1995 and 2003, and an earlier edition of the End of Life Choice Bill in 2012. All failed to make it past the first reading.

Who would be eligible for assisted dying?

If the End of Life Choice Act comes into effect, a person who requests assisted dying must meet strict criteria. The person must:

  • Be aged 18 years or over.
  • Be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand.

  • Suffer from a terminal illness that's likely to end their life within six months.

  • Have significant and ongoing decline in physical capability.

  • Experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased.

  • Be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying.

The Government says those whose only reason for requesting euthanasia is that they are suffering from a mental disorder or mental illness, have a disability, or are of advanced age are not eligible.

Those considered able to make an informed decision about assisted dying are people who can understand the information, remember it, weigh it up and communicate their decision in some way.

The physician in charge of the case must do their best to ensure a person's choice to ask for assisted dying is their own.

"If, at any time, the doctor or nurse practitioner thinks a person is being pressured about their decision, they must stop the process. A health practitioner is not allowed to suggest that a person consider assisted dying when providing a health service to them.

What would be the process for someone requesting euthanasia?

The process for assisted dying would begin with a person asking their doctor for it.

The doctor - alongside another, independent physician - must then agree that the person meets the criteria stated above. If either doctor is unsure, a psychiatrist must assess the person.

If they are eligible, they choose a method, date and time for their death.

At the time the person has chosen, the doctor or nurse practitioner must ask them if they still want to go ahead. If they do, the doctor or nurse practitioner gives a lethal dose of medication, and remains available to the person until they die.

If they change their mind, the medication must be taken away.

What does it mean that it's a 'binding' referendum?

Government-initiated referendums can be 'binding' or 'indicative'. The End of Life Choice referendum is binding.

'Binding' means the Government must act on and implement the outcome of the referendum.

This was the case in the flag referendum of 2015-2016, when Kiwis voted to keep the current flag rather than replace it with a Kyle Lockwood-designed silver fern flag.

Kiwis voted to keep the current flag in 2016, rather than replace it with a Kyle Lockwood-designed silver fern flag.
Kiwis voted to keep the current flag in 2016, rather than replace it with a Kyle Lockwood-designed silver fern flag. Photo credit: Getty

'Indicative' means the Government does not have to act on the outcome of the referendum.

One example of this was the citizen-initiated corporal punishment referendum of 2009, when 87.4 percent of respondents answered 'no' to the question: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Despite the result of the referendum, the Government did not change its anti-smacking laws.

The cannabis legalisation and control referendum, which you will have the opportunity to vote on at the same time as the euthanasia referendum, is also indicative.

How do I vote in the referendum?

The End of Life Choice referendum will be held alongside the general election and the cannabis legalisation and control referendum on September 19, 2020.

When you go to vote, you will be given one voting paper for the election, and another for the referendums. You must be eligible and enrolled to vote to have your say.

If you're in New Zealand, you'll be able to vote when advance voting starts on September 5. If you'll be overseas at the time, you can vote from overseas from September 2.

Where does the public stand?

A Newshub-Reid Research poll held in February 2020 found 61.9 percent of would vote 'yes' in the End of Life Choice referendum, while just 23.7 percent would vote 'no'.

That echoes results of another poll in early 2018 that showed 71 percent of people would support allowing terminally ill patients to choose to die with the help and approval of their doctors.

Another poll conducted by Three's The Hui and Horizon Research in March 2020 shows 72 percent of Maori would vote in support of the End of Life Choice Bill.

A poll by Euthanasia-Free NZ and Curia Market Research released last month shows things are more evenly split, with 57 percent of respondents agreeing and 43 percent disagreeing with allowing doctors to administer lethal doses of drugs to patients.

However Seymour, whose work resulted in this year's referendum, told Stuff the results are misleading because the question asked did not reflect the nature of the End of Life Choice Bill.

"The majority of New Zealanders have seen bad death and they're saying, 'when my time comes, not for me - it's my life and it should be my choice'," he told Newshub.

Where does each party stand?

Euthanasia is not an issue that sits neatly along party lines.

In the End of Life Choice Bill's third reading, the majority of MPs were allowed a conscience vote. It was this vote that saw the Bill put to a referendum.

This meant National MPs Maggie Barry and Chris Bishop - Parliament's most outspoken critics and supporters of the Bill respectively - were able to vote truthfully on an issue deeply personal to them.

Labour, too, voted on conscience.

New Zealand First all voted in favour of the Bill in its third reading, after leader Winston Peters agreed that his MPs would do so only if the issue was put to a public vote.

The Green Party voted as a bloc to support the Bill, conditional on an amendment that made eligibility for euthanasia more narrow. It said in 2016 that it would support voluntary euthanasia if it got into government.

The ACT Party, with Seymour at the helm, is in favour of legalising voluntary euthanasia.