Around 1000 people a year could opt to die under the euthanasia bill before Parliament – the equivalent of New Zealand’s suicide and road toll combined.

While it is very difficult to make hard estimates, the bill’s architect David Seymour has said he expected the numbers to opt for assisted dying to be somewhere between two and four percent of all deaths.

The End of Life Choice Bill, currently before Parliament’s Justice Select Committee, sets out a process by which people, suffering a terminal illness likely to kill them within six months or suffering unbearable pain that can’t be relieved, irreversible decline and grievous health, can apply to receive fatal medication from their doctor.

Seymour told Parliament when he introduced the Bill that he expected between three or four percent of people facing death would take up the option of medically assisted dying, “based on experience in countries where such legislation is in place, and based on the choices that New Zealanders currently make”.

A link to his Hansard speech is here:

He told his fellow MPs that would equate to around six people of the 120 in Parliament taking the option.

In an interview with Newsroom this week, Seymour said the numbers are hard to estimate but could end up between two and three percent of all deaths each year.

There were 33,339 deaths recorded in New Zealand last year. A take-up rate of two percent would mean 667 deaths from assisted suicide, three percent would mean 1000 deaths and four percent, 1333.

It is important to try to put these numbers into context. In terms of deaths in New Zealand, 9615 people died in 2015 from cancer, according to Ministry of Health statistics. Around 5000 died from heart disease that year.

Last year, 378 people died on our roads. The number of people who committed suicide in 2016-17 was 606. So an assisted suicide rate of three percent or 1000 people would put the numbers just ahead of the combined road toll and suicide toll today.

Getting away from death, 1000 people is roughly the roll of schools like Northcote College, Auckland, Rotorua Boys High, St Peters School, Cambridge, Wellington East Girls, Riccarton High, Christchurch or Kings High, Dunedin, according to Ministry of Education figures. There have been more than 1100 All Blacks since 1884 –  Karl Tu’inukuafe is number 1117.

Seymour told Newsroom that the take-up rate could be influenced by a number of factors.

They include how easy it is to apply, the process to go through and the timing.

“I suspect that in the first years, very few would take advantage of it. But as the option becomes better known and organised, more people will opt for it. I think long-term it will become around two to three percent of deaths in a year. After a generation the numbers level out.”

The numbers of people carrying out medically assisted dying varies in countries where it is legal, mainly because of the different systems and criteria set up. The Journal of the American Medical Association said it could range from 0.3 to 4.7 percent of deaths, depending on criteria.

One variable is how many people decide to explore the option and then go through with it.

Seymour estimates how many people may end up opting to take their life based on overseas experience but no one is quite sure how many New Zealanders may opt to explore assisted dying.

The End of Life Choice Bill envisages a patient asking their medical practitioner. The practitioner provides advice, counsels them to speak to friends and family and tries to make sure they are not being coerced. The practitioner then seeks a second opinion (the doctor can opt out as a conscientious objector but the administering body then provides names of other doctors who can help). If they both feel the patient  meets the criteria then the medical practitioner works with the patient to determine how they want to die and when, but also reminds them they can change their mind.

Seymour believes his bill balances safeguards without being bureaucratic and would apply only to a proscribed number.

Submitters like David Mullan, a retired Methodist minister of Red Beach, agree. He has been living with advanced prostate cancer and wholeheartedly supports the right to assisted dying.

In his submission, released on Wednesday, he says he doubts there would be a “wholesale rush of aspiring candidates”.

“Indeed, a significant proportion of patients, even when offered the means of shortening their lives, decline to do so. There is no reason to believe that there is a vast multitude of people waiting impatiently to be allowed to initiate the earlier ending of their lives.

“So when the time comes, the number of people like me who might wish to claim the right to choose and might meet the necessary criteria may still be a very small proportion of the dying. The great majority will see out their lives without even having to think about the issues. This Bill will not disadvantage them, but it could liberate a minority who might otherwise suffer very bad deaths.”

Newsroom is analysing the submissions as they are released onto the Justice select committee website. Earlier articles in this series:

End of Life Choice Bill: what does it say?

Tales of death and dying, unplugged 

Euthanasia views splinter over dementia

Allow people a choice over their manner of dying

Euthanasia bill should not go ahead: law firm

Assisted dying’s risk of coercion

What to call ending your life?

Assisted dying divides Anglican bishops

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