History of euthanasia in New Zealand

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in New Zealand under the 1961 Crimes Act. Euthanasia activists seek exemptions similar to abortion exemptions.
  • The Laws' Death with Dignity Bill lost support after Laws appeared to support euthanasia for children.
  • Several MPs have made a commitment to work for Law change.
  • Euthanasia advocates claim the cause is being undermined by a "vociferous moral minority."
  • Disability groups fear that euthanasia advocates are not interested in taking on board the reality of disability.
  • Those opposed to euthanasia are concerned that euthanasia would follow the same path as abortion, which despite legal restrictions, has become 'on demand'.
Derek Humphrys, English journalist and veteran voluntary euthanasia campaigner visited Australia in the late 1970s. In Auckland, the NZ Humanists Association and the Rationalists agreed to sponsor Humphrys on a speaking tour of New Zealand.

In 1978, members of both organisations formed the Auckland Voluntary Euthanasia Society and began the campaign to bring about social change.

Their big opportunity came in 1995, when MP Michael Laws sought to introduce his Death with Dignity Bill. It failed to get introduced into the House, but generated much publicity and public discussion.

In 2003, MP Peter Brown promoted a second Death with Dignity Bill. This had been preceded by five cases of husbands “mercy killing” their disabled or ill wives, over a four-year period.

The Legal Barrier
The 1961 Crime Act does not deal directly with euthanasia, but legislates on suicide and assisting another person to die.

The key statutes are: Section 167(a) and Section 179.

Section 167(a) refers to anyone who kills, murders.

Section 179, refers to a person who aids or abets another to commit suicide.

Both Death with Dignity Bills sought exemptions to these prohibitions.

The first Death with Dignity Bill
This bill was inspired by the example of the Northern Territory Parliament, who on May 25th, 1995, voted to allow voluntary euthanasia. The Bill was later overruled by the Federal Government.

This saga generated huge public debate in Australia, which was widely reported in New Zealand. In June, Michael Laws had polled his constituents on a number of issues, including euthanasia – and believed that the time was right to emulate the Northern Territory Bill.

He joined forces with fellow MP Cam Campion, who was then terminally ill with cancer and they promoted the Death with Dignity bill. Cam Campion’s plight generated much public sympathy.

The Death with Dignity Bill would come into force only after a national referendum, to be held at the time of the next general election in late 1996.

In the event, the Bill came before the House on the evening of 2nd August and then was deferred to the 16th August. MPs debated whether it should be introduced into the House and sent to a select committee. 29 voted Yes, 61 voted No.

There were a variety of reasons for the defeat: Laws’ personal unpopularity with many MPs, compounded by a disastrous television appearance where he appeared open to euthanasia for disabled children. Concern grew among many MPs about the dangers of subtle “duty-to-die” pressure on the elderly.

Anti-euthanasia forces organised a nationwide network, paralleled within the medical profession, which ran an effective lobbying campaign to MPs. Bill English played a decisive role behind the scenes gathering crucial political support.

Political support
In May 1997 MPs Matt Robson and Tim Barnett announced at a meeting organised by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society VES (Auckland) that they would work to introduce an assisted suicide bill into Parliament.

To this end Robson and Barnett wrote to all Members of Parliament to determine the level of support they might expect.

In September 1997, MP Peter Brown publicly committed himself to introduce a new Bill into Parliament. He had the support of Labour MP Chris Carter who said he believed that euthanasia had broad support in New Zealand and saw no reason why it could not be legalised. 

Carter said the cause for assisted suicide was being undermined by a "vociferous moral minority."

In the attempt to label opponents to euthanasia and assisted suicide as a moral, usually 'religious', minority, advocates often fail to take into account disabled groups. At the 2004 National Conference of the Disabled Persons Assembly, Associate Professor Christopher Newell said in the keynote address:

"...I notice the New Zealand debate to do with euthanasia, something I would suggest will recur time and time again. Strong leadership is required from governments in these areas. Precisely because people with disabilities live with the very conditions and situations whereby we become members of categories who may, and indeed should, die covered under euthanasia legislation.

Sadly, all too often euthanasia advocates are not interested in taking on board the reality of disability - precisely because our lives are seen as exactly what they want to avoid. We are the opposite of choice and freedom according to non-disabled values. I say this as someone who once desperately sought death from a health professional in really appalling circumstances, and am always grateful for a response which supported me as a person, rather than just viewing this as an understandable request."
In 1999 Lesley Martin attempted to kill her terminally ill mother by overdose and suffocation with a pillow. A police investigation was closed 10 months and no charges were laid against Martin. The police relaunched the homicide investigation however, after Martin wrote in her book, “To Die Like A Dog”, that she had tried to kill her mother.

Martin joined forces with Australian euthanasia activist Dr Philip Nitschke and formed EXIT NZ, an organisation to push for the legalisation of euthanasia.

The town of Wanganui, where Joy Martin died, found itself at the centre of the euthanasia controversy and citizens found it hard to remain neutral. With all the publicity and fuss, as well as the Death with Dignity Bill due to come up for a vote in Parliament, some of the locals convened a Public Forum on Euthanasia so people could be better informed on the issues.

The speakers were: Father Michael McCabe, director of NZ Catholic Bio-ethics Centre, Jonathan Hartfield, hospice doctor; Mary Stewart, registered nurse, Catholic Bishop Peter Cullinane. Read the transcripts here...

The second Bill
The promoter of the second Death with Dignity Bill 2003, MP Peter Brown, was Deputy Leader of the New Zealand Party.

His Private Member’s Bill was drawn from the ballot on 6 March 2003 and was very similar to the 1995 Death with Dignity Bill, promoted by Michael Laws.

The Bill would have allowed persons who were terminally and/or incurably ill, to request a medically qualified person to end their lives in a “humane and dignified way – and to provide for that to occur after medical confirmation, a psychiatric assessment, counselling and personal reflection”.

A person would not have to be dying to be euthanised.

The Bill was designed in such a way, that if it had been passed through the Parliamentary process, it would have become the Death with Dignity Act 2003. But, only after two conditions were met.

In the first instance, it would have been subject to a National Referendum, held at the nearest general election and which asked this question:

Should the Death with Dignity Bill become law?

The result was to have been declared by the Chief Electoral Officer.

Only then, the Bill stated, would the Bill pass into law. The purpose of the Referendum was seen as giving the New Zealand public the opportunity to make the final decision by a majority vote.

The main problem with this approach is that the general public would be asked to make a decision based on misleading or biased information and emotional appeals, unless they took the time to research the issues involved.

The 'Slippery Slope'
Opponents to euthanasia warned that the issues would be manipulated and appealed on grounds of compassion and "the hard cases".
They were concerned that euthanasia would follow the same path as abortion.

Abortion is illegal in New Zealand except for a few exceptions. The legislation was designed to provide for the circumstances and procedures under which abortions may be authorised "after having full regard to the rights of the unborn child."

Parliament recognises that the safe-guards designed to limit abortion have failed and New Zealand actually has abortion-on-demand.

An Auckland barrister warned health professionals of the risk of criminal and civil liability as a result of performing abortions in breach of the current New Zealand Law:
"The abortion law of New Zealand appears to have been interpreted very liberally over recent years by sectors of the medical profession. Indeed the interpretation of the law appears to have been so liberal that it raises questions as to the lawfulness of many of the abortions carried out in New Zealand."
Despite this general recognition that medical professionals are breaking the law with impunity, the Abortion Supervisory Committee, responsible for keeping under review, all the provisions of the abortion law in New Zealand, wrote in it's 2000 report, that abortion should be decriminalized and become an integral part of women’s health services.

New Zealand sets a precedent in "futile care" case
In 1998 the High Court of Auckland granted doctors the authority to remove life support from a severely disabled infant despite the parents’ strong opposition.

The infant, referred to as Baby L, was born two months prematurely and, according to the doctors, had a rare brain abnormality, Mobius Syndrome, and Polands anomaly. She was unable to swallow or smile, and could not feed or breathe on her own.

Justice Cartwright and Justice Paterson made Baby L a ward of the court, after the parents wanted to prolong her life. Doctors said her case was hopeless.

With the exception of the parents' views, all favoured the application to place the child in the court's guardianship because they considered it was in the baby's best interests.

"We are satisfied, after considering L's right to life, when contrasted with her right to be free from discomfort and pain; when considering her parents' deeply felt wish to her life to be prolonged as long as possible . . . that L's best interests would be promoted by granting this application."

The baby was made a ward of the court and the judges gave Auckland Healthcare neonatal intensive care specialist Dr David Knight the right to manage the baby's treatment, including the withdrawal of life support.

While the judges admitted the parent's wishes should be taken into account, they could have no veto authority. The hospital took the case to court after its ethics committee determined that the infant’s situation was "hopeless" and that her treatment was "futile and therefore inhumane."

The court’s ruling caused the disability rights community and others to condemn the decision as fostering infanticide.

Court decisions
In April 1999 John Karnon was sentenced in the High Court to two years supervision after pleading guilty to a charge of manslaughter over the death of his ill wife in January 1999. Euthanasia campaigners said that the case showed the need for legislation.

In October 2001 Dr Chris Simpson was convicted of manslaughter after his terminally ill mother was found dead in October 2000. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment.

In August 2002 Rex Law was sentenced to an 18-month jail term with the option of home detention for the death of his ill wife in March 2002. He ultimately served 9 months in prison.

March 2003 saw Lesley Martin arrested for the attempted murder of her dying mother after claiming in her book, To Die Like a Dog, that she twice tried to assist her mother to die in 1999. Controversy arose over Wanganui District Court judge Gregory Ross banning her from giving media interviews, and promoting pro-euthanasia views and sales of any work already done containing those views.

In May the same year police decided not to pursue criminal charges against Ralph Vincent following the death of his terminally ill wife in September 2002. Mrs Vincent was found with a plastic bag over her head. The investigation into Mrs Vincent's death centred on whether it was suicide or assisted suicide. In April 2005, Mr Vincent, 86, was found dead, after apparently taking his own life. He left a notice to say that he had committed suicide and did not want any attempts made to revive him.

In 2004 Nelson man was found not guilty of the murder or manslaughter of his 5-month old infant daughter. Baby C had a brain as developed as a 13 week old foetus and it would never develop beyond that. Several child advocacy groups feel this decision is an erosion of the rights of severely disabled children and paves the way for them to be killed indiscriminately.

On 30 April 2004 Martin was convicted of attempted murder. She served nine months of a fifteen-month sentence and subsequently failed in two appeals to have her conviction overturned.

After serving her sentence Martin broke ties with Dr Nitschke and changed 'Exit NZ' to 'Dignity New Zealand'.

Christchurch MP Tim Barnett once again decided to throw his support behind efforts to legalise euthanasia. He announced on February 1, 2005 that he wants to see voluntary euthanasia on Labour's post-election social reform agenda.