The legalising euthanasia debate was put before a ‘Citizens’ Jury’ recently by medical researchers to see whether a random group of Kiwis could reach a consensus after hearing experts on the issue.

The University of Otago led researchers found that at the end of the three day hearing and deliberations that the 15 jurors couldn’t agree; with ten in favour and five against.

Act leader David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill is currently with the Health Select Committee and if the bill – or a variation of the bill – is passed it will allow people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition, the option of requesting assisted dying.

One of the jury organisers, Emeritus Professor Charlotte Paul from the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine said the jury was randomly selected from the South Dunedin and Te Tai Tonga (Māori) electoral rolls. During the hearing they heard seven experts present key aspects of the debate and were able to question the speakers and deliberate together on their decision.

Paul said despite the contentious nature of the topic – and the clear disagreement that emerged amongst the members – the jury was able to “deliberate in a respectful and productive manner throughout the process”.

She said at the end of the three days the jury could not agree because of different approaches between how people weighed up the arguments regarding compassion and individual choice versus the potential community harm.  Ten of the jurors believed the risk of potential community harm could be adequately managed and supported the law change, while five believed the risks could not be managed and were opposed. During the process, four jurors changed their position to ‘strong opposition’, while six moved from ‘uncertainty’ or ‘moderate support’ to ‘strong support’.

“This outcome suggests that informed deliberation will not produce agreement on the issue. Indeed, it may lead to more people opposing a law change, but it may make people who are supportive more sure of their position,” said Paul.

The jury members were asked before and after whether they thought the issue should be addressed through a national referendum. Although a majority supported a referendum, this proportion fell after the hearing. The main reason people changed their minds was that they considered the issue to be too complex for a referendum and that the public did not have enough information.

Based on the experience, the University of Otago researchers’ Dr Richard Egan, Dr Simon Walker, Ms Jessica Young, Dr Chris Jackson and Professor Paul made a late submission to the Select Committee on the End of Life Choice Bill outlining their findings.  They neither supported nor opposed the intent of the Bill.

The 15 jurors discussed the following question: Do you think the law in New Zealand should be changed to allow doctors to provide or administer a medicine to a person, at their voluntary and competent request, that will bring about their death, under certain circumstances?

 The jurors who supported a law change cited several reasons, including preventing people having to endure unbearable pain, respecting individual choice, protecting loved ones from witnessing suffering and a scepticism about whether the New Zealand health system could sufficiently address the needs of all New Zealanders who are dying.

Those who were opposed to a law change were concerned it would devalue the lives of vulnerable people, raise ethical issues for doctors, and erode the care of older and disabled people. They considered a law change would benefit a minority but adversely affect the majority and that sufficient care already existed for a “good death”.

Those supporting a law change recognised the importance of these concerns, but believed they should be addressed through safeguards. Both groups recognised the need for more investment in palliative care.

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