In referenda run alongside parliamentary elections last month, two thirds of New Zealanders voted to legalise euthanasia, while a small majority voted against legalising marijuana. Results from a further 480,000 special votes, to be published on November 6, cannot change the euthanasia outcome and so the End of Life Choice Act will come into effect a year from now.
Collectively, we seem happy for fellow Kiwis to kill themselves rather than suffer, but unhappy to suffer the probable harms of letting people grow their own weed and smoke a joint or two before driving down the motorway. This makes sense: the dead cannot hurt us but the living can.
The precedent for making homicide and suicide solutions to suffering was established in this country with the partial decriminalising of abortion in 1978. Thereafter, the risk of “serious and permanent injury” to her mental health would allow virtually every woman who sought an abortion before 20 weeks to have one.
Earlier this year, by a parliamentary vote of 68 to 51 (one MP missing or abstaining), abortion was removed from the Crimes Act altogether, and an unborn child may be aborted after 20 weeks if a doctor thinks this is “appropriate in the circumstances”. There is no upper time limit.
For a vociferous group of women, including politicians of both left and right, whether the woman is suffering because of her unwanted pregnancy is nobody else’s business. Abortion is hers to choose or not. Her body, her choice. If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one. In practice, this is how we have been valuing life in its beginnings for four decades.
It is no surprise, then, that the majority of us now accept the same approach to suffering at the end of life. Euthanasia has been on the agenda of a few upper-class secularists for at least as long as abortion has been, and Death with Dignity bills were introduced to parliament in 1995 and 2003. Borrowing from the abortion playbook the first End of Life Choice Bill was introduced in 2012, but withdrawn.
The success of the 2017 bill of the same name this year owes a lot to the untimely death of the beautiful and well-connected Wellington lawyer, Lecretia Seales, who dedicated her final months of life pursuing a case for assisted suicide under the Human Rights Act. She failed and died peacefully in a hospice, but her husband, Matt Vickers, took up the cause and a young libertarian politician, David Seymour, made it his own.
MPs voted for his bill at the third reading 69 to 51 — the same as for the abortion law in March. Both were conscience votes, and showed the extent to which social liberals from all parties now dominate politics. Even Maori members, whose reverence for life and nature might have made more of a difference, were split about 50:50.
The referendum result — after a well-argued and well-fought campaign against the Seymour bill — of 65 percent in favour and 38 percent against, suggests that moral liberalism also dominates the culture of Aotearoa.
And not mere middle-of-the-road liberalism. A New Zealand Herald editorial noted that becoming the seventh country to legalise voluntary euthanasia reaffirms New Zealand’s status “as a progressive country on social issues.”
Kiwi progressivism is the flipside of galloping secularisation. At the 2018 census 48 percent of people said they had no religious affiliation – up from 29 percent in 2001. Without a large Pacific Island population and a steady stream of immigrants from the Philippines, India and other south-east Asian countries our religiosity could be even weaker. Three recent prime ministers — Helen Clarke (Labour), John Key (National) and Jacinda Ardern — are agnostics.
Of course, agnosticism and secularism don’t rule out values and virtues. Kiwis rather pride themselves today on their compassion, or kindness — not least towards the dying — even if their compassion at times owes more to utilitarian ethics than to the Sermon on the Mount.
Nor are we without big, altruistic goals. Yesterday the Herald published a 28-page supplement called “Financing the future” which is about how the financial sector can (must) put “planet and people first” in its investment decisions. Introduced by the Prime Minister and her Deputy/Finance Minister, it’s full of words like “sustainability”, “inclusion”, “equality” and “social cohesion.”
And, honestly, it’s great stuff. How can anyone be against “clean technology…positive health outcomes, increased economic value and resilience to climate change.” I certainly want those things, along with an end to poverty, domestic violence and the mental health crisis. And Covid.
I just think we have started on the wrong foot. Sanctifying killing as compassion makes improving society look all too easy. It is a path to selfishness and callousness rather than social responsibility and kindness, undermining the very virtues that are needed to face the challenges of both nature and culture.
Will knowing that you can dispatch your loved one with a lethal injection make you more likely to share your income with the poor, or recycle your rubbish responsibly? I don’t think so.