Frank Sanft, who is almost 97 and in almost constant pain, wants to end his own life. But a loophole in new euthanasia laws doesn’t allow him. Andrea Vance investigates.
Approaching his centenary, Frank Sanft is articulate, lucid and heroic – he landed in Normandy, France, on D-Day and liberated Australians from the Changi prisoner of war camp after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945.
He has travelled the world, rose to the top in the newspaper printing business, and cherished the two children he had with wife Gwynne.
But now his life has shrunk. Alone since her death, pain and immobility confines him to a neat apartment in a Remuera retirement village. It is time for Sanft to go.
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“I’m 97 in November. And I’ve been around too long,” Sanft says.
“I’m suffering. I have osteoporosis, which caused my spine to fracture in three places. I used to be six foot tall. Now I’m lucky if I’m five-foot eight.”
His injuries are compressing his stomach, which means he can also no longer enjoy many foods, or coffee and wine. Thrice-weekly golf games are a thing of the past.
A heart problem denies him pain relief stronger than paracetamol.
“I tried opiates for two days,” he explains.
“I was looking at the window and I saw the trees move when the breeze wasn’t blowing. I thought my body’s fallen to pieces. I’ve still got my brain. So I refuse opiates.”
A recent trip to local shops left him in agony: “It was bolt of lightning all down my spine.”
So, now he stays put, spending long days reading and watching television.
“I can’t go outside. I can’t walk. I fall over.”
“My life is in this room,” he says. “That’s the only life. It’s no life. And the type of pain that I’ve had… if this was a 10-storey building, I’m sure I would have jumped out the window.”
Sanft, who is a grandfather of four and great-grandfather of three, doesn’t want to kill himself.
“I enjoy life. But I can’t put up with it for another five years.”
Euthanasia became legal in November last year. A referendum on the End of Life Choice Bill saw 65% vote in favour in 2020.
The law gives people with a terminal illness, that is likely to end their life within six months, the option of requesting assisted dying. But because Sanft’s condition won’t kill him, he is ineligible.
“When the bill passed I was in euphoria,” he says.
“But the legislation doesn’t work for me because I don’t have a terminal illness.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said a terminal illness was an illness that cannot be cured and will likely lead to the person’s death within six months.
“A person can’t access assisted dying solely because they have a mental disorder or mental illness, have a disability or are of advanced age.”
Since the legislation passed, 143 people have had an assisted death. As of the end of June 2022, 400 people applied for assisted dying, of which 101 were still in the process of assessment or preparation and 153 people did not continue the process due to being ineligible, withdrawing or dying.
ACT leader David Seymour is Sanft’s local MP. He also sponsored the legislation – and explains it was watered down for political compromise.
“The bill I first submitted allowed a person who had grievous and irremediable medical condition to seek assistance,” Seymour says.
A member’s bill, it was pulled from Parliament’s biscuit tin in June 2017 and six months later passed its first reading 76 votes to 44.
But the medical profession was divided.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners said it was up to individual members, but the New Zealand Medical Association was firmly against it. Palliative care organisations loudly announced opposition.
There was also considerable concern from the disability community.
MPs on the select committee were told the disabled risked being unwillingly captured by a law that inherently viewed their quality of life as lesser.
It was a conscience issue, so Labour and National MPs were voting individually. But the Greens and NZ First were voting as a block. Winston Peters’ party backed the bill on the condition it went to a referendum.
But the debate opened up a rift in the Greens.
“It was an internal battle between [former MP and health boss] Kevin Hague who was very much in favour of assisted dying, and [disabilities spokesperson] Mojo Mathers,” says Seymour.
“The Green Party has such a complex policy formation process that it consults a wide range of membership, and partly because they didn’t want to be seen as doing anything that would be disrespectful towards people with a disability, they found themselves unable to support the bill.”
A deal was necessary.
“There were also a number of people, mainly in the National Party, who weren’t voting for the bill. I simply couldn’t afford to lose those votes.
“It was very harrowing.” Seymour personally knew people who would be cut out of the legislation, including his namesake David Seymour, who suffers from motor neurone disease, and Rachel Rijpma, who has Huntington’s.
“But I also knew that if I didn’t take those eight Green votes, then nobody would get the legislation. The compromise was the wrong policy. But it was the only political option.
Seymour says he was left enormously frustrated.
“The opposition to this part of the legislation was based on misinformation, and we should put it right.”
Sanft is enduring the consequences of those parliamentary machinations.
“The only reason we’re in this mess is because of the political situation to get the bill through. People like me, and worse off than me, can go on for years. These people in Parliament have no idea what pain is. They are a pain themselves, as far as I’m concerned.”
A review to see how the legislation is working is due to begin in 2024. But Sanft can’t bear to suffer for that long.
He deliberated for a long time before making public his heart-breaking story.
“I am not morbid. I’m not fed up with life. I’ve had a very good life. I’ve had a very happy marriage and a couple of children that come and see me. I’ve been very, very fortunate.
“I don’t want to kill myself, because I enjoy life. But I can’t put up with it. I’ve got pacemaker to keep me going. I could live for another 10 years. The thought of it is terrible.”
He is also compelled to speak up for older generations.
“A lot of people my age, just a bit younger or even older, want to go to bed and not wake up in the morning. They’re in so much pain. They desperately want to leave this planet, but they still retain a bit of pride.
“It reminds me of the Duke of Edinburgh. He was asked, just a couple of months before he died, if he was looking forward to his 100th birthday. His reply was: ‘God, no. Bits are falling off me now. I’m ready to go’. That’s how I feel.”
He has looked death in the eye many times. English-born to a Kiwi father, World War II broke out when he was 14. He joined the British Royal Navy aged 17 after the death of his brother. A year later, he found himself on the beach at the Normandy landings, for the liberation of France in 1944.
He was part of Operation Pluto, laying an undersea fuel pipeline between the Isle of Wight and Cherbourg (vital in keeping Allied vehicles moving, directly after the invasion of France). Onshore, with a bayonet and no ammunition, he had a close call with a sniper. “I’ve had some terrible experiences, but I don’t even want to talk about them,” he says.
In 2017, he was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit, in recognition of his role.
Serving in the Pacific, he was there after Singapore’s notorious Changi Prison was liberated. “It’s the best thing I’ve done,” he says.
He was ticked off for giving one of the prisoners his dinner as they sailed out of the harbour – solid food would have made him ill.
“They were like I feel at the moment. Immobile, starved skeletons.”
After the war, he moved to New Zealand and joined the Naval Reserve, making the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He also spent 20 years living in Hong Kong.
“It’s been an interesting time, I’ve made so many good friends. But most of them are dead now.”
Suicide is not an option. “I’m a very old-fashioned sort of values guy. And I would like to go legally.
“I feel sad for people who’ve got a six-months terminal disease, but they know they’re going to die. I would swap it any day.”