Euthanasia referendum: Are opponents afraid of what the public might decide?

by Graham Adams / 19 November, 2017
Opinion.

 Australian Labor MP Jaala Pulford is hugged by Gavin Jennings MP while crying after speaking about the loss of her daughter. Victoria's lower house passed the historic voluntary euthanasia laws on Oct 20. The legislation had to be approved by the upper house. Photo / Michael Dodge, Getty ImagesOpponents are not keen to hear what voters might say.

Sometime in the new Parliament — probably early next year — New Zealand is going to engage, once again, in a debate about assisted dying when David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill is presented. The media will yet again depict it as a highly contentious debate that divides the nation in two, when, in fact, it’s nothing of the sort.

Most New Zealanders support assisted dying for the terminally ill and have done so for decades. In June, a Horizon survey showed 75 per cent of those polled favoured a law change to allow the terminally ill and people with irreversible, unbearable suffering to be helped to end their lives peacefully. Only 11 per cent were opposed.

In July, a Colmar Brunton poll found 74 per cent supported assisted dying. Eighteen per cent were opposed.

In September, a 1 NEWS / Vote Compass poll showed 68 per cent of voters agreed, or strongly agreed with the statement: “Patients with terminal illnesses should be allowed to end their own lives with medicinal assistance.” Nineteen per cent of participants in that poll were opposed, with 12 per cent neutral, and one per cent undecided.

The opposition is very well organised and very vocal, but it’s hardly a face-off between two equal forces as the media likes to frame it. Indeed, how could it be when those opposed make up, at best, a fifth of voters? And there is no better proof of how much the debate’s divisiveness is artificially magnified than opponents’ reaction to the possibility of a referendum on the topic. 

When it was discovered that the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement included a reference to a referendum on assisted dying at some point in the progress of Seymour’s bill, the lobby group Right to Life was quick to denounce it: “The issue of euthanasia is simply too complex to be put to a public vote… Right to Life does not think this is a matter that should be decided by individuals within the community.”

In a couple of sentences, the fundamentalist Catholic organisation revealed its astonishingly authoritarian position — ordinary people can’t be trusted to understand or vote on what happens to them at the end of their lives. It is also a tacit admission that the numbers lie heavily with those in favour.

Right to Life added: “We also are concerned that should the result of the referendum support euthanasia, this will impose pressure on the conscience of those members of Parliament who are opposed to it, and who want to protect the community.”

In other words, the public are not only too dim to understand what they are voting for but if — in their befuddled state — they did vote in favour, those MPs who don’t want to fulfil the people’s wishes might be pressured to do just that.

David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill will revive the debate about euthanasia, but public polling suggests most people are firmly in the 'yes' camp. Photo / Getty Images

Across the Tasman, this approach cuts no ice with former Victoria Supreme Court judge Betty King. As Victoria’s legislators decide whether to approve an assisted dying bill, she clarified what a conscience vote means — “I think politicians should understand that a conscience vote is not about their individual beliefs but about representing the views of their constituents.” 

Jewish MP Philip Dalidakis made the same point.  He told Victoria’s Parliament in October that his religious views should not be imposed on the voters he represents, who, he said, overwhelmingly supported the proposed assisted dying legislation.

Dalidakis said he had discussed it with a senior Orthodox rabbi who opposed the legislation because it was not compatible with Judaism. “One of the things I said was: ‘Why is it that my faith should somehow have a greater weighting in the decisions I make as a legislator in comparison to the rights of an individual that may not be of the same faith as myself?’”

He voted in favour of a law change, but MPs who, for personal or religious reasons, can’t bring themselves to vote in line with their constituents’ views can always abstain. In 2003, Labour list MP Dr Ashraf Choudhary abstained in a vote to legalise prostitution, even though that outraged some in the New Zealand Muslim community given that it is considered to be against their faith.

When I asked Simon O’Connor, chair of the Health select committee inquiry into assisted dying and a former trainee priest, for his opinion on a referendum, he expressed a similar view to that of Right to Life:

“I don’t believe referenda are a good way of addressing highly complex issues – and euthanasia/assisted suicide certainly fits into this space. To reduce a complex issue down to a single, often skewed, question with a ‘yes/no’ answer does no justice to issues that come with many complications and nuances.”

The answer to O’Connor’s position must surely be that this debate has raged for decades and most people are well aware of the complications and nuances — not least because assisted dying has been legalised in eight nations, and in six US jurisdictions. Plenty of evidence has been made available from these jurisdictions to show that assisted dying can be made to work successfully without abuse of the vulnerable, or society stepping onto a slippery slope.

The Care Alliance — which was set up in 2012 to oppose Maryan Street’s End of Life Choice Bill and is chaired by John Kleinsman from the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre — has the same view as Right to Life and Simon O’Connor.

Its secretary, Peter Thirkell, told me, “Justice Collins, in his decision following the 2015 High Court case brought on behalf of Lecretia Seales, observed that ‘the complex legal, philosophical, moral and clinical issues raised by Ms Seales' proceedings can only be addressed by Parliament.’ We agree with this sentiment, and believe that an issue as complex and fraught as euthanasia and assisted suicide does not lend itself well to a single-question referendum.”

Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales had asked the courts to clarify the law over her right to die. The High Court ruled against her. Photo / Facebook

Quoting Justice Collins is a little disingenuous on Thirkell’s part given that the judge was not referring to a referendum that might guide parliamentary action but rather simply making the case that it is not for the courts to decide on a matter that rightfully belongs under Parliament’s jurisdiction.

And the repeated assertion by opponents that a complex issue like euthanasia “does not lend itself well to a single-question referendum” is simply untrue.

In the US, a referendum on assisted dying was held last November in Colorado alongside the general election that brought Donald Trump to power. Two-thirds of voters approved the law change and access to a lethal drug is now available to the terminally ill. The ballot results mirrored the consistent results of state polling before the election — and there is every reason to believe a referendum here would show the same numbers in favour as polling conducted over decades has.

New Zealand also has experience of successfully putting complex questions to a referendum. In 1992, a non-binding referendum was held to decide whether First Past the Post should be replaced by a more proportional voting system. Voters had to say, first, whether they wanted to replace FPP and, then, which of four alternative systems should be adopted — Preferential Voting; Mixed Member Proportional; Supplementary Member; or Single Transferable Vote.

An official information campaign conducted before the referendum meant that voters had plenty of information to help make a decision and they unsurprisingly handled these complex choices with no problems. The process was repeated at the 2011 election to check that New Zealanders wanted to continue with MMP. It’s hard to see how a referendum on end-of-life choices would be any more difficult.

Curiously, one piece of evidence of popular support that opponents often refer to is the number of submissions made to the health select inquiry hearing that O’Connor chaired. And, in particular, calculations made by the Care Alliance that 77 per cent of the 21,000 submissions were against legalising assisted dying.

Advocates of a law change have stressed that submissions to an inquiry do not constitute a referendum, and they have dismissed the result as largely the product of an energetic campaign by the churches, which urged their followers to write in opposition and even supplied arguments they might want to use.

And it’s an inescapable truth: If opponents are so confident that the submissions made to the committee are a true representation of the public will — and more accurate than decades of polling — why would they now oppose a referendum on assisted dying?

It’s pretty clear it’s because they know very well that the ayes would have it.

 

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