Assisted in dying in New Zealand so far: 143 deaths, one investigation and no law breaches

Four complaints have been filed about the new assisted death service, which came into effect in November. One was referred to the Health and Disability Commissioner. Photo / 123rf

An investigation was opened after the filing of a complaint for assisted death in a public hospital.

A family member of the deceased filed a complaint about his hospital experience with the Department of Health.

The Department’s Assisted Dying Secretariat confirmed the complaint and referred it to the Health and Disability Commissioner, who launched an investigation.

Other details, including the location of the hospital, were not known. The ministry and the commissioner’s office declined to provide further details.

It was one of four complaints in the first five months of the assisted death service, which came into effect in November after a majority of New Zealanders backed legal euthanasia in a public referendum. The other three complaints had been resolved.

The Registrar of Assisted Dying’s first annual report on the service – which covers the period from November to March – shows there have been no breaches of the law so far. In addition to the complaints received by the department, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Registrar Kristin Good’s report.

Patients and family members have expressed satisfaction with the process, the support of doctors, and the “peaceful” and “dignified” death of their loved ones.

End of Life Choice Society president Ann David said she had received rave reports about the service. She said even patients who were “bitterly disappointed” not to be eligible for assisted death were counseled “with warmth and compassion” by their doctors.

She told the story of an elderly woman who had not wanted to die in her room in a rest home and arranged to die in a beautiful outdoor setting in the bush.

“Within minutes she fell into a sleep from which she never awoke. She had avoided a protracted and grueling death, instead remaining under personal control until the end.”

The latest data shows 400 people have requested assisted death through June and 143 people have died.

About 80% of the candidates were Pakeha and more than half were over 65 years old. The majority of service applicants had been diagnosed with cancer.

The number of people whose applications were refused was high by international standards – possibly due to the relatively strict criteria for access to medical assistance in dying in New Zealand.

A total of 68 people (17%) were deemed ineligible, more than half of them because they did not have a terminal illness likely to end their life within six months.

Act party leader David Seymour, who spearheaded the law change, said the department had done a “remarkable job” in running the service so far.

He noted that some candidates had died while awaiting ministry approval.

“In a way, these are the most tragic cases. But if no one died while waiting for approval, you might wonder if [the process] was going too fast. And if too many people were doing it, then you might wonder if it was too rigorous.”

Law Chief David Seymour said he still believes the law on end-of-life choice is too strict and that more people should be able to access medical assistance in dying.  Photo/Mark Mitchell
Law Chief David Seymour said he still believes the law on end-of-life choice is too strict and that more people should be able to access medical assistance in dying. Photo/Mark Mitchell

Seymour said the “one big flaw” in the law was the decision to narrow its scope to exclude people with “grievous and irremediable” illnesses – such as motor neuron disease.

He said he accepts this amendment to ensure passage of the law, but still believes that people with these conditions should be able to access euthanasia.

The Registrar’s report indicated that one of the main themes of feedback to the ministry was that the threshold for access to euthanasia was too high.

“The legislation is not as empowering as some people had hoped, with the criteria making assisted dying more restrictive than overseas jurisdictions.

“That came with the expectation that the criteria would expand over time.”

John Kleinsman, a bioethicist at the Catholic organization The Nathaniel Centre, said he hopes the department collects a wider range of data on medical assistance in dying, including why people choose the service.

It could help guard against wrongful deaths by helping to identify if people felt a “duty to die” because they were a burden on family or caregivers, he said.

His main concern was the growing demand from an underfunded palliative care sector. Demand is expected to increase by 50% over the next 10-12 years, and access is uneven depending on where you live.

“It has been well documented that palliative care is grossly underfunded in Aotearoa. The idea that assisted dying will become a solution to the lack of quality end-of-life care is extremely distressing and frankly unethical. and undermines the idea that it is a choice.”

New Zealanders voted in favor of legalizing assisted dying in a public referendum in 2020, with 65% of voters in favor and 34% against.

About Norman Griggs

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