Is Euthanasia a health priority for New Zealand at present?

By September 14, 2020 Recent News

University of Otago 9 September 2020
Family First Comment: “Judging by the experience in Oregon it is likely that this may only benefit a small number of older educated white people. The health system is currently significantly stretched by the extra demands and changes required because of Covid-19… Hospices currently have to fundraise for 60% of their costs. Only one in three people dying in New Zealand are supported by a hospice. There are 33 hospice services in New Zealand but there is inevitably limited service to rural areas and smaller centres. Given this limitation of access, and the extent of fundraising required, there is a strong argument to prioritise funding to hospices as an effective and non-contentious strategy to decrease suffering at the end of life. This may also decrease the demand for euthanasia.”

At the next election voters will be asked to answer the referendum question “Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 20191 coming into force?” If a majority vote Yes then this Act will come into force without further amendment.

The focus of discussion has almost exclusively been around the ethical question of whether, in the circumstances described in the Act, it is ethical to proceed with medically assisted aid in dying. There has been little discussion about whether, if we accept this is ethical, introducing a regimen to enable this is a sufficient current health priority to justify the funding required to operationalise the Act.

If this level of demand is reflected in New Zealand, then it will benefit a small but increasing number of people over time likely from a group who can afford the costs and who already get significant benefit from our health system. The result of enacting this Act will be to increase health outcome disparities…we will be providing an additional service to educated white people. The opportunity cost to the State will be higher if this is State funded. If privately funded there will be a smaller opportunity cost to the State of running the accountability bureaucracy, but the service will only be available to those who can afford it.

A lot of effort has already gone into this debate. No matter what the outcome, the opposing sides are both likely to continue to be active. If it is passed, those opposed will probably lobby to try to limit the application of the Act. If it is not passed, then proponents will probably continue to lobby to re-litigate at a future date. In the meantime political parties are likely to pay more attention to issues at the end of life. Hospices currently have to fundraise for 60% of their costs.7 Only one in three people dying in New Zealand are supported by a hospice.8 There are 33 hospice services in New Zealand but there is inevitably limited service to rural areas and smaller centres. Given this limitation of access, and the extent of fundraising required, there is a strong argument to prioritise funding to hospices as an effective and non-contentious strategy to decrease suffering at the end of life. This may also decrease the demand for euthanasia.

Changing the status quo now will require focus on this issue and take attention away from the much more serious issues of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and to the Simpson review of the health system.

The ethical debate is unlikely to reach consensus. However, this referendum is also about allocating scarce health care resources on providing an assisted dying service (assuming it has an element of state funding), which will disproportionately be used by the affluent and educated. As well as considering the ethics of euthanasia we also need to consider whether the funding needed to set up and run an assisted dying service would be better spent on other priorities such as reducing disparities in cancer screening, diagnosis and care services or supporting and improving the provision of palliative care.
READ MORE: https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/pubhealthexpert/2020/09/09/is-euthanasia-a-health-priority-for-new-zealand-at-present/
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