US & World

New Zealand Supports The Right To Die, But Rejects The Right To Get High

New Zealanders have voted to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill but voted down legalizing marijuana. The questions were put to the country in separate referendums held in conjunction with the general election that handed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a landslide victory for another term.
New Zealanders have voted to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill but voted down legalizing marijuana. The questions were put to the country in separate referendums held in conjunction with the general election that handed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a landslide victory for another term.
Mark Baker/AP

New Zealanders have voted to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill but voted down legalizing marijuana. The questions were put to the country in separate referendums held on Oct. 17 in conjunction with the general election that handed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a landslide victory for another term.

The preliminary results from the referendums on two major social questions reflect a potential significant shift in social attitudes in New Zealand.

With most votes counted, New Zealanders emphatically endorsed voluntary euthanasia. Sixty-five percent said "yes" to the proposition on the right to die, putting the country on track to become one of the few that permits assisted suicide.

The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, parts of Australia and several states in the U.S. are among those that have legalized euthanasia.

Approval of the "End of Life Choice Bill" was the result of an emotional, years-long campaign that featured ardently-held views on both sides. And it had been anticipated. Public opinion surveys in the run-up to the balloting showed wide support.

The measure is expected to come into effect November 2021, and would allow terminally ill adults with less than six months to live the opportunity to choose assisted dying, if approved by two doctors.

"Thousands of New Zealanders who might have suffered excruciating deaths will have choice, dignity, control, and autonomy over their own bodies, protected by the rule of law," said lawmaker David Seymour of the libertarian ACT Party.

Matt Vickers, who carried on his late wife Lecretia Seales' fight to legalize the right to die, called the result "a victory for compassion and kindness." Seale was a lawyer diagnosed with a brain tumour and launched a legal challenge to end her life. But the case, documented in the Vickers' book Lecretia's Choice: A story of Love, Death, and the Law, was unsuccessful, and she died of her illness.

Vickers told the BBC, "She didn't want to die. No one does. That's a popular misconception. The problem was the choice to live had been taken away," he said." Seales' story had been catalyst for the movement in New Zealand for the right to assisted suicide.

Among opponents, Dr. John Kleinsman, an ethicist for the New Zealand Catholic Bishops, said the vote endangered those who are vulnerable, and that the existence of such a right-to-die option presented additional pressure on families, and health care workers. Others expressed concerns about people with chronic illnesses feeling obliged use resort to euthanasia to avoid being a burden on their families.

The results announced Friday do not include some 480,000 votes, many overseas ballots, and the final outcome will not be confirmed until Nov. 6. But with such strong support, the tabulation favoring assisted suicide is not expected to change.

The proposal to legalize recreational marijuana was much closer. New Zealanders narrowly rejected it by a margin of 53% to 46%.

Conservative lawmaker Nick Smith called it, "a victory for common sense." But because overseas voters have tended to track more liberal, supporters of the legalization of cannabis say there is still hope after their votes are counted that the measure could be approved.

Proponents of legalizing marijuana were frustrated that Prime Minister Ardern wouldn't reveal how she intended to vote ahead of the October ballot. Many thought her endorsement would lift the fortunes of recreational drug use.

Ardern waited until Friday to disclose that she had voted "yes" to both propositions.

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