History of the New Zealand Voluntary Euthanasia Society

The Campaign for Voluntary Euthanasia in New Zealand
Life.org.nz interview of Jack Jones, the Secretary of the Auckland Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

Jack Jones is the public face of the voluntary euthanasia movement in New Zealand. Now a semi-retired chartered accountant, and Justice of the Peace, Jack recalls how he got involved:

"It was the late 70s when Derek Humphry visited Auckland. He was a journalist and the leading campaigner for voluntary euthanasia in Britain and the United States. He wrote two very influential books, Jean's Way, about how his wife Jean had an incurable illness and asked him to help her die. Humphry put a pill in a cup of tea and she died in his arms."

"Final Exit was virtually a text book for voluntary euthanasia and methods that people had used."

"I was in the Rationalist Association then and we focussed on attacking religious influence, keeping it out of schools and promoting a secular New Zealand. The NZ Humanists approached us about working with them to promote Derek Humphry's visit to NZ. Their aims were more eclectic, whereas we had the reputation of church ?bashers'. We agreed to jointly sponsor Derek Humphry to come over from Australia for a speaking tour and it all started from there."

In 1978, the Auckland Voluntary Euthanasia Society was launched.
"We were an incorporated society, unlike the V.E.S in Wellington, but we sing the same tune together. Our founding committee had among others, Leo Stack, Jack Jones, Frank Haigh (a lawyer), Ray Carr (a well-known Humanist), Jim Woolnough (operating surgeon at Auckland's first abortion clinic), Nina Barraclough and Wynn Chase."

"Leo Stack did all the public relations work. He was a human dynamo and a very good organiser, we soon approached 1,000 members."

Promoting "Living Wills" Advance Directives
"Our first success was under the National Government, when Jenny Shipley introduced her Health and Disability Consumer Rights Act. Robyn Stent was appointed the first Commissioner with responsibility for drawing up the Code. I had a look at it and there was nothing about Advance Directives. We lobbied Robyn Stent and she agreed to put them in, but insisted that each Directive must be witnessed by a solicitor or a JP. We would have been happy to accept this."

"Jenny Shipley was sympathetic to our case and ruled that an Advance Directive as a common law right, should be free from restrictions, without necessity for formal witnessing ? and could also be made orally. She sought advice from the Crown Law Office and now an Advance Directive can be made by anybody."

"The crucial parts in the Code are Right 4 (section 4) which states that: ?Every consumer has the right to have services provided in a manner that minimises the potential harm to, and optimises the quality of life of, that consumer.' Section 5 states:
?Every consumer has the right to co-operation among providers to ensure quality and continuity of services'.

"That wording has the indirect effect of legalising passive euthanasia. The Code requires compliance from medical authorities and is binding under the Act."

Marshall Perron's Bill ? the inspiration for Michael Laws "Death with Dignity" Bill
In February 1995, Marshall Perron, Chief Minister of the Northern Territory in Australia, introduced a private member's bill entitled "The Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill". It caused a world-wide sensation when passed, because the Northern Territory became only the second place in the work where euthanasia was legal. The other state was Oregon in the USA.

In the Netherlands, euthanasia was then quasi-legal, with doctors being immune from prosecution for assisting death, so long as certain guidelines were followed.

Under the Northern Territory bill, terminally ill people with less than 12 months to live, of sound mind and suffering severe pain and distress, without the prospect of a satisfactory medical alternative, could choose to die by either self-administered, or doctor-assisted lethal injection or tablet. The bill required two doctors to be satisfied that the required conditions exist before a patient signed a "death request certificate."

The bill was passed in late May, 1995, however the Federal Government was able to override the Act, as the Northern Territory is not a State like Queensland or Victoria. Critics of the Act claimed that unlike other States, the Northern Territory Government had no hospices or palliative care alternatives.

In New Zealand, National MP, Michael Laws introduced his Private Members Bill in mid-1995. Jack Jones recalls the event:

"Michael Laws launched his bill entirely on his own initiative. He didn't even seem to know we existed! Naturally, we soon made contact and offered our services and support. His "Death with Dignity" bill generated massive publicity for the voluntary euthanasia movement. The papers and talkback radio were full of it."

"Yet when the bill was introduced into the House in August 1995, it was defeated at first reading. The feedback we got from some MPs and political commentators, was that that if it had been anybody but Michael Laws, it would have attracted more support. He wasn't very popular with other MPs."

In late May 1997, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society movement sponsored Marshall Perron on a public speaking tour of the main centres throughout New Zealand. In 1999 and 2003, they sponsored a similar tour by Australia's leading voluntary euthanasia advocate, Dr Philip Nitschke.

Jack Jones is encouraged by the way the Courts are handling recent cases of assisted suicide. "Court judgements are setting a precedent of non-punitive sentences and I think that prosecutions will gradually wither away."

He says that the Society in Auckland has around 1,000 paid up members, mostly older people.

He stresses that the Society is not about euthanasia per se, but "voluntary" with safeguards. They admire the hospice movement and acknowledge that pain can now be effectively controlled.

"We argue that if you are terminally ill and face weeks, or months of just waiting to die, then you should be allowed to choose not to go through all that. In that situation, medical technology is now so advanced it is not prolonging life, it is prolonging a living death. We used to call pneumonia "the old people's friend", because it took you off so easily. Now they can treat it like a cold and you just have to go on living, long after you want to."

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society (Auckland) Inc has now merged with the Wellington Voluntary Euthanasia Society to form the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand.