Frank Sanft, who is almost 97 years old and suffers almost constantly, wants to end his life. But a loophole in the new euthanasia laws does not allow this. Andrea Vance investigates.
Approaching his centenary, Frank Sanft is articulate, lucid and heroic – he landed in Normandy, France on D-Day and liberated Australians from Changi POW camp after the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
He traveled the world, reached the pinnacle of newspaper printing and cherished the two children he had with his wife Gwynne.
But now his life has shrunk. Alone since his death, pain and immobility confine him to a neat apartment in a retirement village of Remuera. It’s time for Sanft to go.
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“I’m 97 in November. And I’ve been here too long,” Sanft says.
“I’m in pain. I have osteoporosis, which caused my spine to fracture in three places. Before, I was six feet tall. Now I’m lucky if I’m 5-foot-8.
His injuries are compressing his stomach, which means he can’t enjoy many foods, coffee or wine either. Rounds of golf three times a week are a thing of the past.
A heart problem denies him stronger pain relief than paracetamol.
“I tried opiates for two days,” he explains.
“I was looking out the window and saw the trees moving as the breeze didn’t blow. I thought my body was in pieces. I still have my brain. So I refuse opiates.
A recent trip to the local shops left him in agony: “It was lightning all the way down my spine.”
So now he stays put, spending long days reading and watching TV.
” I can not go out. I can not walk. I fall.
“My life is in this room,” he says. “It’s the only life. This is not a life. And the type of pain I had… if it was a 10 story building, I’m sure I would have jumped out the window.
Sanft, who is a grandfather of four and great-grandfather of three, does not want to kill himself.
” I enjoy life. But I can’t stand it for another five years.
Euthanasia became legal last November. A referendum on the End-of-Life Choice Bill saw 65% of votes in favor in 2020.
The law gives people with a terminal illness, likely to end their days within six months, the possibility of requesting medical assistance in dying. But because the Sanft state won’t kill him, he’s not eligible.
“When the bill passed I was euphoric,” he says.
“But the legislation doesn’t work for me because I don’t have a terminal illness.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health said terminal illness is one that cannot be cured and will likely result in the person’s death within six months.
“A person does not have access to medical assistance in dying solely because they suffer from a mental disorder or mental illness, have a disability or are of advanced age.
Since the law was passed, 143 people have had an assisted death. At the end of June 2022, 400 people requested medical assistance in dying, of which 101 were still being assessed or prepared and 153 people did not continue the process due to their ineligibility, withdrawal or death. .
ACT leader David Seymour is the local MP for Sanft. He also sponsored the legislation – and explains that it was watered down for a political compromise.
“The bill I first submitted allowed a person with a grievous and irremediable illness to seek help,” says Seymour.
A private member’s bill, it was removed from Parliament’s cookie jar in June 2017 and six months later passed first reading by a vote of 76 to 44.
But the medical profession was divided.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners said it was up to individual members, but the New Zealand Medical Association strongly opposed it. Palliative care organizations loudly announced opposition.
The disability community was also very concerned.
MPs on the select committee were told the disabled risked being unwittingly captured by a law that inherently viewed their quality of life as less.
It was a matter of conscience, so Labor and National MPs voted individually. But the Greens and NZ First voted as a bloc. Winston Peters’ party backed the bill on the condition that it go to a referendum.
But the debate opened a breach among the Greens.
“It was an internal battle between [former MP and health boss] Kevin Hague, who was very supportive of medical assistance in dying, and [disabilities spokesperson] Mojo Mathers,” says Seymour.
“The Green Party has such a complex policy-making process that it consults with a wide range of members, and partly because it didn’t want to be seen as doing anything that would be disrespectful to people with disabilities, he found himself unable to support the bill.”
An agreement was needed.
“There were also a number of people, mostly from the National Party, who were not voting for the bill. I just couldn’t afford to lose those votes.
“It was very painful.” Seymour personally knew people who would be excluded from the legislation, including his namesake David Seymour, who has motor neuron disease, and Rachel Rijpma, who has Huntington’s disease.
“But I also knew that if I didn’t get those eight green votes, nobody would get the legislation. Compromise was the wrong policy. But it was the only political option.
Seymour says he was extremely frustrated.
“The opposition to this part of the legislation was based on misinformation, and we should address that.”
Sanft suffers the consequences of these parliamentary machinations.
“The only reason we’re in this mess is because of the political situation to get the bill through. People like me, and worse off than me, can go on for years. These people in Parliament have no idea what pain is. They are a pain themselves, as far as I am concerned.
A review to see how the legislation works is due to start in 2024. But Sanft can’t bear to suffer that long.
He thought long and hard before going public with his heartbreaking story.
“I am not morbid. I’m not tired of life. I had a very good life. I had a very happy marriage and two children who come to see me. I have been very lucky.
“I don’t want to kill myself, because I love life. But I can’t bear it. I have a pacemaker to continue. I could live another 10 years. The idea is terrible.
He is also obliged to speak on behalf of older generations.
“A lot of people my age, just a little younger or even older, want to go to bed and not wake up in the morning. They suffer so much. They desperately want to leave this planet, but they still retain a bit of pride.
“It reminds me of the Duke of Edinburgh. He was asked, just months before his death, if he was looking forward to his 100th birthday. His response was, “God, no. Pieces are falling off me now. I’m ready to go’. This is how I feel.”
He looked death in the eye several times. Born in England to a Kiwi father, World War II broke out when he was 14. He joined Britain’s Royal Navy aged 17 after his brother’s death. A year later, he found himself on the beach during the Normandy landings, for the liberation of France in 1944.
It was part of Operation Pluto, laying an undersea fuel pipeline between the Isle of Wight and Cherbourg (vital to keep Allied vehicles moving, just after the invasion of France). On the ground, with a bayonet and no ammunition, he had a close call with a sniper. “I had terrible experiences, but I don’t even want to talk about them,” he says.
In 2017, he received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honour, in recognition of his role.
Serving in the Pacific, he was there after the release of Singapore’s infamous Changi Prison. “It’s the best thing I’ve done,” he says.
He was ticked off for feeding one of the prisoners his dinner as they left port – the solid food would have made him sick.
“They were how I feel right now. Motionless, hungry skeletons.
After the war, he moved to New Zealand and joined the Naval Reserve, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He also spent 20 years in Hong Kong.
“It was an interesting time, I made so many good friends. But most of them are dead now.
Suicide is not an option. “I’m a very old-fashioned type of values. And I would like to go there legally.
“I am sad for people who have been terminally ill for six months, but they know they are going to die. I would trade it anytime.