New Zealand votes to legalise euthanasia in referendum

This article is more than 1 month old

Results must be enacted by the new Labour government by November 2021, but second referendum on legalising cannabis fails to find support

Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern voted yes on both of the referendum issues Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern voted yes on both of the referendum issues Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
in Queenstown

Last modified on Fri 30 Oct 2020 17.30 GMT

New Zealanders have voted to legalise euthanasia for those with a terminal illness, in a victory for campaigners who say people suffering extreme pain should be given a choice over how and when to bring their life to a close.

The decision on whether to legalise euthanasia appeared as a referendum question on the 17 October general election ballot paper, alongside a second referendum question on whether to legalise cannabis – which did not succeed, according to preliminary results.

The results of the euthanasia referendum are binding and will see the act come into effect 12 months from the final results – on 6 November 2021. Assisted dying will be administered by the Ministry of Health.

Preliminary results announced on Friday by the electoral commission saw 65.2% of eligible voters tick “yes” to legalising euthanasia, with 33.8% ticking “no”.

Only 46.1 % of New Zealanders voted to legalise cannabis, while 53.1% voted no.

The referendum results so far do not include nearly half a million special votes, meaning the final results will not be confirmed until 6 November.

This has left cannabis supporters hoping special votes may be able to tip the outcome, but they would need to be overwhelmingly in favour – an outcome seen as slim.

For years support for euthanasia has hovered around the 60-70% mark in polls, with widespread backing across the political spectrum, from prime minister Jacinda Ardern to opposition leader Judith Collins.

The vote makes New Zealand the seventh country in the world to legalise assisted dying. It was a “momentous day” for the country, said campaigner Mary Panko.

“It’s now clear what we have known for decades that Kiwis want, and have always wanted, the right to die on their own terms,” said Panko.

“One day New Zealanders will shake their heads in amazement that the basic human right to say ‘no’ to intolerable suffering ever had to be debated in this country … now because of the passing of this Act our lives as well as our deaths will be immeasurably better.”

Matt Vickers is the widow of Lecretia Seales, who died of a brain tumour in 2015 and was at the forefront of efforts to legalise euthanasia.

“I feel relieved, and I feel grateful that New Zealanders were kind enough to pass this law, and to give the terminally ill a say about how they die,” said Vickers.

The referendum follows the passing of the End of Life Choice Act in parliament in 2019. Under New Zealand law, the act could only come into force if more than 50% of voters ticked “yes” on the referendum ballot.

The act outlines criteria for who can apply to end their life, including that they be aged 18 or over, are New Zealand citizens, are suffering from a terminal illness that will end their life within six months, “have a significant and ongoing decline in physical capability”, are “enduring unbearable suffering that cannot be eased” and are in a position to make an “informed decision” about their death.

Those suffering mental illness or decline would not be eligible, nor would those applying solely on the basis of “advanced age” or a disability. Two doctors – one independent – would have to sign off on the decision, with a psychiatrist called in if either doctor has any doubts.

ACT party MP David Seymour, who sponsored the bill, has been a tireless campaigner for euthanasia, saying New Zealand has steadily become “decades” behind the most progressive countries in the world.

“I think it’s time New Zealand moved towards being a more compassionate and tolerant society,” Seymour told hlcarpenter.com.

“People continue to suffer in ways that are traumatic. I don’t want to have to suffer on to adhere to the morality of someone else. They’ve got their own body if they want to have a ghastly death.”

While the results of the euthanasia referendum are binding, the cannabis issue was not, meaning no matter the outcome the government would still need to debate the issue and pass policy through parliament.

In the lead-up to the October election polls showed a country divided; with support for legalising cannabis veering between 30-50%.

Voters were asked to decide whether they wanted to pass a bill that would legalise cannabis and regulate how it was used and sold. This would include producing and selling fresh and dried cannabis, including plants and seeds – for people over 20 years old. The change would impose more stringent restrictions than the rules around sales of alcohol and tobacco.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she voted yes on both referendum questions.

Ardern recently said she had used cannabis “ a very long time ago”.

Former Labour prime minister, Helen Clark, said cannabis prohibition “doesn’t work” and should be abandoned, a position echoed by many leading public health professionals.

Cannabis is New Zealand’s most commonly used illicit drug, and the latest New Zealand Health Survey found that 15%, or 590,000 New Zealand adults used cannabis in the past 12 months.

Victoria University criminologist Fiona Hutton has worked in harm reduction with cannabis users and said the no vote meant New Zealand’s “most vulnerable and marginalised people will continue to suffer”.

“I am quite devastated, to be honest, very very sad,” said Hutton.

“People voted no to protect young people and the mentally ill. None of that will happen. All the harms from decriminalisation will carry on unabated.”

Māori account for 16% of New Zealand’s population and are shown to be disproportionately affected by New Zealand’s drug laws, facing three times as many arrests and prosecutions for possession of cannabis than non-Māori.