Media Release – 13 January 2017
A survey published in today’s New Zealand Medical Journal mistakenly claims to show that 66% of New Zealanders support the legalisation of euthanasia.
The survey asked, “Suppose a person has a painful incurable disease. Do you think that doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life if the patient requests it?”
“The phrase “end the person’s life” is overly vague and could mean different things to different people,” said Renée Joubert, executive officer of Euthanasia-Free NZ.
“We know from interacting with people all over the country that there is widespread confusion about what euthanasia actually means. We often encounter people who confuse euthanasia with end-of-life decisions that are legal, such as switching off life support, a patient refusing treatment or a doctor withdrawing futile treatment. Some people don’t know that a doctor can legally administer pain relief with the intention of relieving symptoms, even if it may shorten the person’s life as a side effect. This is not euthanasia.”
“The survey question is also overly emotive, by referring to pain,” said Ms Joubert. “Nowadays terminally ill people do not need to die in pain.”
The authors acknowledge the limitations of their study:
“Euthanasia is an emotionally laden issue and it is important to recognize that the way in which the question is asked could affect how people respond… The item in our study included the terms ‘painful’, ‘incurable disease’ and ‘request’, which may have influenced participants to express increased support for euthanasia.”
“The question used in our study included the term ‘painful’ but did not mention any psychological factors associated with desires for euthanasia. This raises the possibility that our findings do not represent people’s support for the concept of euthanasia per se, but instead, support for assisted death in the face of severe physical pain (emphasis added).”
The authors quote an Australian study by Parkinson et al which found that subtle changes in wording corresponded with a massive 48% difference in the level of support.
Seventy-nine percent of respondents stated that they “support the idea of euthanasia”. Seventy per cent of respondents agreed that “a doctor should be able to assist a patient to die”. However, only 31% agreed that “a doctor should be able to deliberately bring about a patient’s death”.
“The latter is an accurate description of euthanasia: It indeed involves one person deliberately bringing about another person’s death, usually by means of lethal injection,” said Ms Joubert.
“Public attitudes to euthanasia cannot be adequately explored by asking a single question that elicits single-word answers. The issue of whether euthanasia and assisted suicide should be legalised is far too complex.
“The current investigation by Parliament’s Health Select Committee is a more accurate reflection of what Kiwis really think and feel about changing the law.”
The Committee announced that they processed 21,435 unique written submissions on the issue and has already heard more than 700 of the 1,800 oral submitters who wished to speak. According to a random analysis 78% of written submissions are opposed to changing the law.