Isaac, a student, talks about his younger brother Reuben.
Two years ago Lecretia Seales, a woman dying from brain cancer, asked the New Zealand High Court to give her the legal right for a doctor to help her end her life. The court ruled in June 2015 that there was no such right under existing law and Ms Seales, 42, died hours later of natural causes. Shortly after, Labour MP Maryan Street and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society presented a petition to parliament for a law change to allow doctor-assisted suicide.
The government responded to the petition – signed by 8975 people – with a public inquiry into end-of-life issues. More than 20,000 people made submissions to the Health select committee and oral submissions from 1800 of them are continuing. Three out of four of them oppose euthanasia – a fact that is not widely known
To change that, a campaign called 16,000Voices is publishing written and video testimonies representing the variety of people who have made their views known to the committee. In the following interview with MercatorNet, Dr Jane Silloway Smith, whose analysis of submissions forms the basis of the information provided in 16,000Voices, talks about the encouraging opposition to the latest attempt to replace care with killing in New Zealand.
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MercatorNet: A New Zealand government committee of inquiry has received more than 20,000 submissions from the public on the issue of euthanasia? That seems a very large number – what accounts for it?
The Health Select Committee reported receiving 21,435 unique submissions to their inquiry on assisted suicide and euthanasia. To put that in perspective, last year another parliamentary committee considered the highly controversial (in NZ) TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) – that inquiry received around 8,000 submissions.
I think the reasons for seeing such a high participation rate in this particular inquiry are 1) because many people realise the gravity of the issue (we’re talking about fundamentally changing the way the law treats and values human life); and 2) there are a lot of communities that have passionate ideas about assisted suicide and euthanasia who wanted to be heard and who were effective at informing and mobilising their members: the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), disability advocacy groups like Not Dead Yet Aotearoa, medical professional associations, churches, those who work in suicide prevention and grief counselling, the Hospice movement, and many others.
What are you aiming to do through the “16,000 Voices” campaign? How important are the videos?
So many times what goes on behind a parliamentary committee’s meeting rooms doors remains hidden from public view. With so many people speaking from their hearts and from their experiences, we didn’t want their stories to go unheard by their fellow citizens – and by each other.
We also wanted New Zealanders to know what the Committee’s been hearing. Most Kiwis assume that the majority of the submissions given must have been in favour of euthanasia – but that’s not the case at all – quite the opposite! If we, as citizens, don’t know what the Committee’s heard, how can we accurately hold them to account for what they write in their report to Parliament?
Using videos, we felt, was an essential component of sharing people’s stories. See their faces, hear their words – these people could be your friends, your neighbours, your colleagues, members of your family. Video allows us to connect with the person and their ideas, something that’s often tough to do on complex issues like euthanasia.
Was the level of opposition expected? What have polls indicated?
The level of opposition was both a surprise and not really a surprise. Polls of New Zealander’s attitudes towards euthanasia, conducted over the past few years, show roughly between 60 and 80% support for the introduction of euthanasia. But we all know how generally useless this type of information is – especially on a topic that is complex. The simple questions that polls often rely on and the quick responses they require don’t really lend themselves to the contemplative thinking required to not only get one’s head around an issue like euthanasia but also to form a well-considered opinion on it.
We know that when people stop and think more deeply about euthanasia and its implications, what can, in some people, be an initial acceptance of the idea of euthanasia often turns into a rejection of it in practice. Back in 2014, the UK organisation Care Not Killing conducted a poll that tested this – they asked those who answered an initial question asking if they supported euthanasia in theory in the affirmative what they thought about euthanasia after hearing some common arguments against it (that it endangers vulnerable people, for instance). What they found is that support for euthanasia significantly drops off once people hear one or more arguments against it.
Formal submissions are a different ball game though…
It not only takes time to write a submission, but you also have to be willing to put your name to it – both of these things require a bit of commitment to the issue you’re writing about. Those who wrote the 21,000+ submissions, therefore, are people who have given some thought to their opinion on euthanasia and feel at least relatively strongly about that opinion. Given what we know generally happens when people think critically about euthanasia, it’s not too surprising that there would be more submissions opposed than in favour.
What sort of media coverage of the inquiry has there been? Are people aware that most submissions are against euthanasia?
For a parliamentary inquiry, there has actually been quite a bit of media coverage, with reports on every major step along the way. What the media, perhaps, hasn’t done such a good job of is accurately reflecting what the Committee has been hearing in the oral submissions. Most articles or news stories about the oral submission process have focussed on the submissions made in favour of euthanasia, with scant mention of those made in opposition. To read these articles, you would get the impression that in a day of 200 oral submissions, 150 must have been in favour, while 50 were opposed, but it was always quite the opposite.
But perhaps the opponents are mainly churchgoers, a captive population who did what their pastors told them to do…
This is a statement you’ll hear often not only from euthanasia-supporters, but also from people who wrote in submissions opposing euthanasia — there’s a pervasive belief that, even if many more people wrote in opposing euthanasia than supporting it, they only did so because they were blindly following what their priests, pastors, and elders were telling them to do.
This assumption is not only demeaning to churchgoers who made the effort to take part in the parliamentary process, implying that they can’t think for themselves, but it’s also wrong. Submissions came in from all over New Zealand, from people from all walks of life, and they were written for dozens of different reasons.
In my analysis of submissions, 17% of those who were opposed to euthanasia cited their religion as a reason for their opposition, while 4% of those in favour cited their religion as a reason for their support. Churchgoers who staked their opinions on their church allegiance wrote in on both sides of the issue. And, on both sides, they were far from the majority of those who wrote submissions.
What are the main reasons New Zealanders advance for opposing euthanasia?
In my analysis of written submissions, I found that there were 31 distinct reasons given for opposing euthanasia. The most commonly cited reasons for opposing euthanasia were:
1. That it is important that the law protects human life
2. The dangers legalised euthanasia pose to vulnerable people
3. That modern palliative care can address pain and suffering
4. The dangers legalised euthanasia would pose to the elderly, in particular
5. That it is important that we live in a society that gives care and support to those who are suffering
6. The mixed messages that legalising euthanasia would send about suicide being a solution to suffering
What about the pro-euthanasia submissions – what are their reasons? Is there anything that opponents can learn from them?
Pro-euthanasia submissions made 28 distinct arguments. These submissions were characterised by an overwhelming agreement that the primary argument in favour of euthanasia was that people should have the freedom to make choices about the end of their lives (74%). After freedom of choice, the most common arguments for supporting euthanasia were:
1. To avoid the suffering associated with illness or disability
2. A desire to not want to go on living if losing one’s abilities or sense of self
3. That there is a need for death with dignity that isn’t currently being offered
4. To avoid the pain associated with illness or disability
5. So that families won’t have to watch someone in pain or suffering
These arguments aren’t too surprising; most of them are the same reasons people in Oregon give for accessing that state’s assisted suicide provisions – loss of autonomy or dignity, fear of suffering and pain. But they do all speak of fear: fears of what could happen to oneself in the case of a serious illness or disability or fear of helplessly watching someone you love experience serious illness or disability.
During a similar inquiry on the same-sex marriage issue 3-4 years ago some people who made oral submissions against felt they were treated badly by the select committee. Has anything like that happened with this committee?
It must be said that the Health Select Committee has done an exemplary job with their oral submissions. Not only have they set aside 7 extra-parliamentary days to hear oral submissions, but almost to a man and woman, they’ve patiently and sympathetically listened to over a thousand people tell their stories. These stories are often quite emotional, and tempers and passions sometimes flare. But the Committee, from all that I have seen and heard, has kept things open, welcoming and fair.
There have been some complaints that some who wanted to speak before the Committee were not given the opportunity or were confused by the process of setting up an appointment for making their oral submission. I’d encourage anyone this happened to to contact the Clerk of the Committee to let them know.
There have been several attempts at introducing euthanasia here – what does the Act Party leader David Seymour’s bill now propose?
David Seymour’s bill, which currently sits in the Private Members’ Ballot, calls for the legalisation of both assisted suicide and euthanasia for anyone aged 18 or over with a terminal illness or other medical condition likely to end his/her life within 6 months or a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition.
What does the current push have in common with campaigns in other countries? Are there significant differences?
New Zealand is experiencing its own ride on the euthanasia wave that began in the US in November 2014 with the publicity surrounding the assisted suicide death of Brittany Maynard. This international wave has seen Canada, Columbia, California, Colorado, and Washington, DC succumb to the passage of assisted suicide or euthanasia legislation, but it has also seen the defeat of similar legislation in at least 20 other US states, South Australia, Scotland, and the UK.
New Zealand goes to the polls in September – how might this affect the outcome of the inquiry?
We’ll hopefully see a final report out of the Health Select Committee before Parliament dissolves in late August. All parties and the Committee itself will be thinking of the political ramifications of this report coming in an election year.
Taking a slightly idealistic view of representative government, we can hope that the Committee’s report will accurately reflect the views of New Zealanders on euthanasia that they have heard – that is, after all, what the original petitioners asked for: “That the House of Representatives investigate fully public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation which would permit medically-assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable.”
The petitioners asked, the Committee sought submissions, and the public has spoken: 3 out of 4 Kiwis say no to euthanasia.
Dr Jane Silloway Smith is the Auckland-based Director of Every Life Research Unit. Her analysis of submissions made to the Committee forms the basis of the information provided in 16,000Voices.