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Fighting in the shadows: The religious flank and voluntary euthanasia

"Churches have lost the argument over compassion, which is supposed to be a bedrock of Christian belief and action." Photo / Getty Images

Voluntary euthanasia is suddenly back in the news. The strongest opposition to a law change will come from religious groups but why are they so shy about mentioning God or their faith?

The assisted dying debate which was thrust into national prominence in mid-2015 by Lecretia Seales’ case in the High Court has been quiet for most of this year, despite health select committee members touring the country to hear personal testimonies. Now it has suddenly roared back into life.

David Seymour’s member’s bill was plucked from the ballot on June 8 in a flurry of publicity, including a media standup at Parliament that saw Seales’ widower, Matt Vickers, and former Labour MP and assisted dying campaigner Maryan Street interviewed alongside the Act MP.

Even if the government manages to delay the first reading of the bill until after the election — which is quite likely given Bill English’s opposition as a devout Catholic — there is no chance the topic will be sidelined. As well as Seymour’s bill, the health select committee has said it hopes to report back to Parliament before the election, and the trial of Suzy Austen is also likely to be under way before the end of the year.

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Austen, who was chair of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society's Wellington branch, faces two charges of importing the class C drug Pentobarbitone, also known as Nembutal, and another of aiding the suicide of an elderly woman. The charges followed Operation Painter, in which the police mounted a bogus alcohol checkpoint in Wellington to gather information about voluntary euthanasia supporters.

Austen has pleaded not guilty to the charges. The trial will be followed closely here and around the world by anyone interested in the topic.

Opponents of assisted dying have wasted no time in launching their resistance to a law change. Within hours of Seymour’s bill being selected, Family First put out a press release headed “Campaign Launched to Kill Act’s Assisted Suicide Bill”.

The battle lines were immediately drawn, with familiar arguments cited, including the risk of coercion to the elderly, vulnerable and disabled.

And, unfortunately, followed by an outright lie: The international evidence backs up these concerns.”

In fact, the international evidence strongly refutes them. The Canadian Supreme Court, the Royal Society of Canada, and, in Australia, the Victorian Inquiry into End of Life Choices found no evidence of coercion, abuse or a “slippery slope” after investigating how assisted dying laws operate around the world. Neither did the Economist, which is campaigning in favour of assisted dying.

And there are plenty of jurisdictions to examine these days, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, and the US states of California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Vermont, as well as Washington DC. More than a hundred million people around the world now have access to assisted dying but not New Zealanders.

Opponents, however, are not going to let facts get in the way of their story, especially those whose religious beliefs dictate their view. As Seymour noted in a party news letter: The Bible says thou shalt not lie but some assisted dying opponents must think they’re specially exempted. If they’re not breaking the letter of the commandments they are certainly outside their spirit. We do not say this lightly — the dishonesty in their campaign is breath-taking.”

The dishonesty does not lie solely in ignoring the evidence from countries where assisted dying laws have worked successfully, sometimes for decades. It lies also in the fact religious opponents often don’t declare their religious motivation because they know it will work against them. Many of us see religion as little more than mediaeval superstition, and the proportion of the irreligious in New Zealand is probably at least 50 per cent, so arguments framed in religious terms will cut little ice with most people.

Consequently, the churches are keen not to reveal their hand too clearly. Among the churches, the Roman Catholic Church is the prime organiser against assisted dying legislation around the Western world, but it has explicitly warned the faithful against couching public arguments against assisted dying in religious terms, or even mentioning religion.

“Avoid religious or moralistic language. Be factual,” was the advice from Catholic bishops to those faithful who wanted to petition MPs after Maryan Street had withdrawn her assisted dying bill from the member’s ballot in the run-up to the 2014 election. She promised to reintroduce it after the election.

In 2015, in response to the health select committee inquiry, a list of 21 “key arguments” the church recommended to be used did not include a single reference to religion, biblical authority, or church teaching, including the “sanctity of life”. The suggested arguments included praising palliative care, raising concerns about the vulnerable, and reference to the “long-standing convention against killing persons”.

Mounting only religion-free arguments is the clearest indication of how much the churches have lost their once-supreme moral authority in the community. Their relentless hugging of the shadows in a debate that goes to the core of their beliefs is an indication of defeat, and of their terminal weakness.

Effectively, the religious have been forced to fight the battle on the grounds of secular humanism their opponents have marked as their own: an appeal solely to non-religious concerns.

The church’s recommendations to not use religious references in submissions therefore make a mockery of Family First’s second press release, two days after Seymour’s bill was drawn, titled: “Claim of 'religious' opposition to euthanasia debunked”.

“Family First NZ says that a full analysis of submissions made to the Inquiry on assisted suicide by the Care Alliance shows 77 per cent opposition to any change in the law, but also conclusively rebuts the claims made by Act MP David Seymour and other supporters of assisted suicide that opposition to euthanasia is driven by ‘religious’ people only.

“13,539 (82 per cent) of the 16,411 submissions opposed to euthanasia contained no reference to religious arguments, while 1535 used some, and just 1337 relied mainly on religious arguments. Ironically, 208 submissions referred to religious reasoning in supporting euthanasia.”

First, no one claims that opposition to assisted dying comes only from the religious. Second, Family First director Bob McCoskrie must know that the Catholic church waged a nationwide campaign to urge the faithful to make a submission opposing a law change, but without including religious arguments.

The invidious position the Catholic church finds itself in was spelled out clearly to the health select committee in early 2016. John Kleinsman, fronting for the Nathaniel Bioethics Centre, the mouthpiece for the Catholic bishops in New Zealand, wrote:

“It is well known that Catholic moral teaching is unequivocal in its opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia. The reasons for this are many and varied. They include reasons that some people would regard as 'religious' in nature because they reflect a certain understanding of the divine origins of life. They also include reasons that are linked to questions of the common good, human dignity, human choice, justice, human rights and human well-being, reasons shared by people of all other faiths and none.

“Religious arguments have their own validity and rationale within a particular faith-based framework. However, we recognise (i) they will not be compelling for persons who do not share our faith perspective and (ii) they are not sufficient for shaping public policy in a secular society. For this reason our submission will focus on arguments of a social, cultural, ethical and philosophical nature that can be understood and appealed to by all persons irrespective of their religious background.”

This is reasonable enough except for one thing: anyone who has a deep religious conviction that rejects any human interference with what they consider to be a natural life span ordained by God is not putting all their cards on the table if they don’t explicitly argue that position. Because if they did, they would have to admit that there is absolutely no evidence that would change their minds, no matter how compelling.

The most common arguments used by religious opponents (and others opposed) are that killing is intrinsically wrong; that legalisation could result in abuses, particularly to the vulnerable; and the possibility of a slippery slope” that could see the initial tight safeguards expanded.

These arguments aren’t particularly strong. The convention against killing is not absolute — society allows major exceptions for state-sanctioned killing during wars and for anyone in self-defence, including police. And, of course, suicide is legal.

Assisted dying legislation in other countries hasn’t led to abuse or vulnerable people being pressured; and the slippery slope argument is basically a paternalistic, anti-democratic position of “If we give you an inch, you’ll take a mile.”

Given that these positions are weak — especially now that there is so much evidence from so many jurisdictions where assisted dying has been used successfully — religious opponents are forced to use tactics of misinformation and fear-mongering.

Australian TV presenter and assisted dying campaigner Andrew Denton calls these tactics FUD — Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt. He related his experience of attending an international conference hosted by the HOPE anti-euthanasia organisation in Adelaide in 2015, convened by a one-time senior officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Denton said the conference “heard a lot about how to influence politicians”, including how former New Hampshire legislator Nancy Elliott spelled out the tactics that had worked for her in the States.

‘When you have lots of arguments,’ Elliott said, ‘if one argument gets blown out of the water, you still have more, and each argument will reach somebody else.

“‘Right now the disability argument is really kicking it. It's very powerful. Will it always be powerful? We don't know. Two, three, four years from now that may have holes kicked in it, just for different reasons, so we have to be flexible.’”

Denton said that after citing elder abuse and suicide contagion as other possible arguments, Elliott went on to say: “You only have to convince legislators that they don't want this bill. You don't have to win their hearts and minds; all you have to do is get them to say, ‘Not this bill’, and then you have got your win.”

We have seen the process at work in New Zealand over the past two years since Lecretia Seales’ situation became public. At first, many of the arguments in opposition rested on the false claim that palliative care could cure all pain and distress.

Now that argument has been shelved, for the moment anyway — mostly because so many personal testimonies of loved ones’ deaths, made in submissions to the select committee (including my own), showed it to be a lie. And Justice David Collins in his judgment in the Lecretia Seales case concluded that palliative care cannot cure all pain.

Instead, we can expect other arguments to be recycled in the debate ahead, to find one that is “kicking it”, as Nancy Elliott said.

The question inevitably arises: “Why have the formerly all-powerful churches been reduced to encouraging their followers to hide their true motivations in public discussion?”

David Seymour put it like this to Noted: “The idea that my religious sensibilities will be offended by other people’s freedoms has no vote appeal.”

Most damaging, the churches have lost the argument over compassion, which is supposed to be a bedrock of Christian belief and action. Instead, they have to appeal to possible harms that might arise through legalising assisted dying while actual harms are being suffered by those dying in pain.

The churches have to avoid revealing much about their deepest beliefs because many of them would inspire scorn, if not revulsion, among the general public. Chief among the beliefs they want to hide is that suffering is seen as a means of sanctification, and a way of sharing Christ’s suffering on the Cross.

Bill English, a practising Catholic, revealed as much in the 2003 parliamentary debate on Peter Brown’s assisted dying bill — and not only the experience of suffering, but watching it as well. English said: Pain is part of life, and watching it is part of our humanity. Many of us have become more human for watching it, whether or not we liked doing that.”

For New Zealanders who are irreligious and don’t see suffering as virtuous, this is simply sadistic, mediaeval nonsense.

Little wonder, then, that the religious prefer to hug the shadows in the assisted dying debate.

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