New Zealanders have voted overwhelmingly to legalise euthanasia in what supporters said was a victory for "choice" and "dignity", preliminary referendum results released Friday showed.
A referendum on the controversial issue was held on October 17, alongside the general election that returned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to power with a landslide majority.
Early figures showed a decisive 65.2 percent of voters supported euthanasia, with 33.8 against, meaning New Zealand will join a handful of countries around the world that allow doctor-assisted deaths.
The lawmaker behind the reform, libertarian David Seymour, said it was a "resounding victory" that would make New Zealand more compassionate and humane.
"Thousands of New Zealanders who might have suffered excruciating deaths will have choice, dignity, control, and autonomy over their own bodies, protected by the rule of law," he said.
The euthanasia debate in New Zealand was sparked by Lecretia Seales, a lawyer who died of a brain tumour in 2015 on the day a court rejected her long-running case for the right to die at a time of her own choosing.
"I feel a huge amount of relief and a huge amount of gratitude," her widower Matt Vickers told Radio New Zealand.
"There was a lot of momentum carrying this thing through."
However, the Salvation Army said there were not enough safeguards in the legislation and it could result in people being pressured into ending their own lives.
"Vulnerable people, such as the elderly and those struggling with mental illness, will be especially at risk from this law," it said.
The New Zealand Medical Association also opposed the reform, labelling it "unethical" ahead of the vote.
- 'Unbearable suffering' -
Voluntary euthanasia was first legalised in the Netherlands in 2002, followed by Belgium later that year, Luxembourg (2008), Colombia (2015) and Canada in 2016.
It is also allowed in a number of US states and the Australian state of Victoria, while some counties allow "assisted suicide", where the patient self-administers fatal medication, rather than a medic or third party.
Euthanasia remains a divisive topic and the Portuguese parliament last week rejected a proposal for a referendum on the issue.
In New Zealand, legislation allowing medically assisted death passed through parliament last year but lawmakers delayed implementing it until the public had its say through a referendum.
Under the law -- which will now come into effect in November 2021 -- a mentally sound adult who has a terminal illness likely to kill them within six months and is experiencing "unbearable suffering" can receive a fatal dose of medication.
The request needs to be signed off by the patient's physician and an independent doctor, with a psychiatrist called in if either has doubts about the person's ability to make an informed decision.
Under current laws, anyone who helps a person to die can be charged with aiding and abetting a suicide, carrying a maximum 14-year jail term, or even murder, where the sentence is life.
In reality, even when criminal convictions have been recorded in such cases, courts have imposed non-custodial sentences.
Ardern supported the right-to-die bill, saying last year she reluctantly agreed to the referendum because it was the only way to advance the legislation.
- Pot vote hazy -
New Zealanders also voted on allowing recreational cannabis, although that motion looks set to fail with preliminary results showing 53.1 percent opposed legalisation, compared to 46.1 in favour.
Ardern was coy during the election campaign about her stance on recreational cannabis, although the 40-year-old did admit to smoking marijuana "a long time ago".
Her office confirmed Friday she had voted "yes" in both referendums.
She "will progress any legislation in line with the will of the people following the release of the final results next week", a spokeswoman for Ardern said.
Under the proposed cannabis law, anyone aged over 20 could buy up to 14 grams (half an ounce) a day, and households could each grow up to four plants.
Recreational cannabis will remain illegal if the "no" vote is still over 50 percent next Friday.