Patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 can die by euthanasia if doctors decide they might not survive, the New Zealand government has declared.
The Ministry of Health confirmed that a right to a lethal injection under a new euthanasia law could extend to patients who were either dying from the coronavirus or suffering unbearably from its consequences.
In response to a request for clarity on a euthanasia law which came into force last month, the government declared that “in some circumstances a person with COVID-19 may be eligible for assisted dying”.
The admission that COVID patients were eligible for a lethal jab came after Henoch Kloosterboer, editor of the anti-euthanasia The Defender website, made a request under the Official Information Act – the New Zealand equivalent to the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.
He said the policy left “the door wide open for abuse” of elderly and vulnerable patients – especially if the country’s health service came under pressure from a COVID surge.
He said: “It would not be hard to envisage a situation in which a speedy and sizeable rise in COVID-19 hospitalisations could result in pressure to utilise euthanasia and assisted suicide as tools to resolve such a serious crisis.”
The euthanasia law, he added, “has now made the COVID-19 pandemic potentially even more dangerous for the people of Aotearoa New Zealand”.
The 2019 End of Life Choice Act is considered to be one of the most extreme euthanasia laws anywhere in the world, and critics say the safeguards are so flimsy that they are easily circumvented.
It permits both euthanasia and assisted suicide for adults suffering from an illness which would be terminal within six months, or who were in an advanced state of irreversible physical decline or who were suffering unbearably.
The law, ratified following a referendum in 2020, guarantees all residents the right of access to a doctor who will kill them within a period as short as four days from receiving a request.
Doctors receive a government fee of $1,000 plus expenses for every euthanasia death they perform.
Just 96 of the country’s 16,000 doctors have offered to participate, however, and all but one of the nation’s 32 hospices have indicated that they will not permit euthanasia.
The one exception – Totara Hospice in South Auckland – has agreed to allocate space on its premises for the practice while its staff will conscientiously object to any participation.
In the UK, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, a professor of palliative medicine, said the New Zealand euthanasia law contradicted the fundamental purpose of medicine and health services to heal the sick.
She said: “It is bizarre that a country which has been trying to protect it citizens by closing down completely from a virus from which people can fully recover … is now suggesting that these patients should be killed by their doctors.
“It turns the ethos of medicine on its head,” she said.
“You really cannot predict death 100 per cent,” she added. “So why not support them while they are dying and leave the door open in case they are in the group that defies all odds and recovers completely?”
At present, Baroness Meacher is seeking to legalise assisted suicide in England and Wales through her Assisted Dying Bill, which in October received its Second Reading in the House of Lords.
The crossbench peer, who chairs the campaign group Dignity in Dying, has also tabled an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill in an attempt to make assisted suicide a part of palliative care.
In Scotland, Liam MacArthur, the Liberal Democrat MP is intending to introduce an assisted suicide Bill and in politicians in Jersey last month agreed in principle to legalised both assisted suicide and euthanasia.
The overwhelming majority of palliative care practitioners and all 12 disability rights organisations in the UK fiercely oppose a change in the law, however.
They argue that assisted suicide and euthanasia would be discriminatory and dangerous and open to abuse irrespective of any safeguard, posing a grave threat to the safety of patients and other vulnerable people.
They also say that the experience of other countries suggests that even a modest assisted suicide law would serve as a beachhead for broader, liberalising amendments which will remove initial safeguards as ‘barriers to access’.
Last month, it was revealed that Nancy Russell, a 90-year-old Canadian woman, chose to die by assisted suicide rather than endure another COVID lockdown in her care home that would isolate her from her friends and family.