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After a mammoth public consultation, New Zealand euthanasia bill hangs in the balance

by | Apr 12, 2019

90 percent of public submissions were opposed to killing

By Carolyn Moynihan

Vicki Walsh, who has an aggressive brain tumour, opposes euthansia. Photo via #DefendNZ

A euthanasia bill before the New Zealand Parliament has provoked the biggest public consultation in the country’s parliamentary history. The End of Life Choice Bill may be voted on as early as May 1, however, a select committee studying the legislation tabled its report on Tuesday saying it was unable to agree that the bill should be passed.

The report of the Justice and Law Committee represents 15 months of work, more than 38,000 submissions, and 42 public hearings of 1350 oral submissions around the country. Some 90 percent of all submissions were opposed, as were 85 percent of the oral submissions so far published.

The committee said it made a number of technical amendments, but it makes no recommendation on the substantive issues in a bill that has seen a groundswell of opposition in recent weeks.

In media interviews and op-eds representatives of doctors, nurses, lawyers and disability groups have panned the initiative as dangerous, pointing to provisions that would allow not only terminally ill persons but those with chronic physical or mental conditions to qualify for a lethal dose.

Along with international experts, they say it has the same slippery slope potential as laws in The Netherlands and Belgium have demonstrated, and as those in Canada and Oregon are now showing.

Notable opponents of the bill include former prime minister Sir Bill English, and his wife Dr. Mary English (GP and spokesperson for Doctors Say No). Organisations opposed to it include the New Zealand Disability Rights Commissioner, the New Zealand Medical Association, and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine.

David Seymour himself, after insisting that his bill contained rigorous safeguards against abuses, has submitted his own 73-page report proposing amendments which limit its scope to meet some of the objections raised. These compromises are aimed at persuading key groups and politicians to support the bill and get the right to be killed established in principle. They include making the bill subject to a binding referendum.

Where was the right-to-die majority?

Seymour and other euthanasia advocates have tried to dismiss the opposition by casting it as “a vocal minority of very determined people.” However, his own right-to-die constituency must be very small — though not very determined – judging by their showing in public submissions.

According to an analysis prepared for the Care Alliance: out of 38,000 submissions from the public, almost 35,000 (92 percent) opposed the bill, while 3141 supported it. Of nearly 2000 from doctors, nurses and other health professionals, again, 90 percent or more were opposed. Of more than 20 organisations representing the medical, aged care and palliative care sectors, not one argued in support of legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide.

All 131 submissions made on behalf of New Zealand churches (100%) were opposed to the Bill, as was a submission from a Muslim charitable organisation supported by 13 other Muslim welfare groups and organisations within New Zealand. A Buddhist group also opposed it.

There were many submissions from people engaged in some way with the disability sector. These were “overwhelmingly opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide because of the adverse impacts that it would have on disabled people, irrespective of the scope and specifics of how the Bill in practice might be implemented,” the Care Alliance analysis found.

‘Oh, but it’s just a religious minority imposing their views’

All – or most of — this, according to the euthanasia lobby (followed closely by the media), can be explained by the religious beliefs of opponents. The message is that religious beliefs ought to have no influence on public policy, which would effectively disenfranchise the two-thirds of New Zealanders who, according to a 2018 survey, have religious or spiritual beliefs.

But religious beliefs are not necessary to see what’s wrong with a society that would let its most vulnerable members end their lives rather than accompany them, provide good care, and reassure them when they doubt their dignity and worth.

And, in fact, most submitters who gave oral testimony did not use religious arguments, Euthanasia-Free NZ found:

“In response to claims on social media that “most” or “all” oral submissions by opponents were religious-based, supporters of Euthanasia-Free NZ listened to all 700 submissions published on the Facebook page of Parliament’s Justice Committee (as at 31 March 2019) and recorded each submitter’s stated position on the Bill, their stated occupation and their use of religious references.

“About 79 % of published submissions made no reference to religious arguments. After removing seven incomplete recordings from the analysis, supporters and opponents were found to be equally likely to use at least some religious arguments. Opponents were slightly more likely than supporters to identify themselves as religious while not using any religious arguments in their submissions, but three times as likely as supporters to base their submissions on religion.”

What about the polls?

The trump card of the euthanasia lobby is polls, which regularly return a large majority in favour of legalising euthanasia. Simplistic questions are put to people on the spot who may not have given the issue much thought. A local poll taken in early 2018 after Seymour’s bill was introduced put it this way:

“Parliament is considering passing a euthanasia law that would allow terminally ill patients to choose to die, with the help and approval of their doctors. Do you support it?”

Of those who responded, 71 percent said yes, 19.5 percent said no, and 9.5 percent did not know.

But what did they understand by the question? A 2017 poll commissioned by Euthanasia-Free NZ showed that the more strongly people support “assisted dying,” the more likely they are to think that it includes end-of-life practices that are actually legal.

Of those who strongly supported “assisted dying”:

  • 85% thought it includes turning off life support
  • 79% thought it includes “do not resuscitate” (no CPR) requests
  • 67% thought it includes the stopping of medical tests, treatments and surgeries.

In all three cases a person would die from their underlying medical condition – of natural causes. It is neither unethical or illegal to forgo active treatment when you are dying. A New Zealand Herald editorial arguing that the decision should be left to a conscience vote by MPs sensibly comments:

“Polls suggest euthanasia would easily pass a popular vote but, like Brexit, a referendum could create more problems that it solves. Decisions are usually best made by people who take the time and trouble to study all the implications and the practical difficulties. This is not the first euthanasia bill to be put before Parliament. Several times MPs have looked hard at the subject and backed away.”

This may be an optimistic view of MPs, but further public and parliamentary debate is the best chance we have of putting all the issues and evidence on the table. The movement leading opposition to the Seymour bill has done an excellent job in this respect.

In one of a series of video documentaries by #DefendNZ featuring individuals who would probably qualify for euthanasia under the Seymour Bill as it stands, bioethics professor Margaret Somerville, who witnessed the euthanasia debate in Canada, said:

“New Zealand is a beautiful country, but it is not unique. Should you pass the End of Life Choice Bill, you would suffer the same fate as other countries. In every single one of them, the criteria for access to euthanasia has widened, the rate of carrying out euthanasia without compliance with the law increases, and the number of cases of euthanasia increases rapidly.”

That is the reality to which the New Zealand public and politicians need to open their eyes.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet where this appeared.

Categories: Euthanasia