The Sarco, developed by Exit International

The New Zealand Parliament has twice voted against a bill to allow for legal euthanasia (1995 – vote 61-29; and 2003 – vote 58-59). On Wednesday, a new bill passed its first reading (76 to 44).

What agility do we have in discussing ethics?

Leaving Roman Catholic clergy formation to one side for the moment, what percentage of priests and pastors have done any substantial academic study of ethical theories – sufficient to be able to lead their community in real reflection on this and other complex issues? I dare you: on Sunday, go up to your priest or pastor and ask: “Do you hold to a deontological or a consequentialist approach to ethics, and what do you see as being the plusses and minuses of each?”

Although many Christians conveniently silo people into such boxes as “conservative”, “liberal”, “progressive”, and “revisionist”, I have always found labelling individuals unhelpful. Contrary to such futile classifications of people, I know many who are, say, moderate about divorce, progressive about same-sex relationships, and conservative on euthanasia.

Let’s turn now to the actual euthanasia discussion.

One parliamentarian said, “My own grandmother attempted suicide a number of times when I was a child because she felt she was a burden on society”. Our response to this is, surely, not helping her to succeed in her attempts. It is facilitating our society to be more caring, and helping people to realise that each person is precious – no one is a burden.

A recent opinion piece highlights the issue in our nation which, shamefully, ranks high in the world’s suicide-rates lists:

At a time when Canterbury – and the wider nation – is rightly distressed about our shameful, unshakeable suicide epidemic and the clamour for effective mental health services, the notion of sanctioning assisted suicide seems crudely incongruous.

As the Medical Association (NZMA) points out, legalising euthanasia would saddle New Zealand with the grey area of “rational” suicides and “irrational” ones. The Care Alliance soberly warn that it would lead young people to think suicide was an acceptable response to suffering.

It is disingenuous to argue, as the author of the bill David Seymour does, that “a significant percentage of suicides in New Zealand were people who knew they were dying and wanted to take control”.

New Zealand has high-quality palliative care. This needs to be stressed, and if necessary, further resourced.

The bill is considering a procedure that looks, at least initially, to be in conflict with the oath that doctors make. We need to be clear that what is not being debated is the ethical “principle of double effect” where a physician uses a treatment, or gives medication, for an ethical and legal intended effect where the potential outcome is good (eg, relief of a symptom or pain), knowing that there will certainly be a secondary effect (such as death). This is not a debate about when we can switch off life support, or about whether to use extreme measures to extend life a little longer.

We may think we are engaging in rational debate, but how we speak (and write) about euthanasia may be significantly affecting our opinions. Look, for example, at the language: the bill is titled “End of Life Choice”. Our city’s newspaper (The Press) in the headline called it the “Right to die bill”. It is regularly called “assisted dying”. “Choice”, “rights”, and “assistance” immediately conjure up positive sentiments. Even the word “euthanasia” literally means “good death”. Let’s not underestimate the way the language we use affects people.

Churches have a much reduced influence in New Zealand. Roman Catholicism, arguably the organisation with the strongest philosophical tradition of academic study of ethics, lost its footing in 1968 when, with the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI (ab)used the (in principle good) Natural Law theory of ethics to decide (against the majority of his advisers who were using the same Natural Law) that artificial contraception is immoral. The majority of Kiwi Roman Catholics ignore this teaching. Furthermore, that church lost its ethical credibility through the sex abuse scandals. Its teachings on euthanasia may influence devout, practicing Catholics, but it would surprise me if its teaching had much impact beyond its flock.

Anglicanism has been embroiled for decades in debating who may love whom. This hasn’t been focusing on ethical theories shared beyond the faith community; it has been an endless argument about what biblical texts might mean for gays. None of that inconclusive (surprise!) biblical stuff is going to transfer easily to euthanasia. Certainly, quoting bible verses to a culture that mostly sees them as primitive texts with a rather capricious deity is not going to cut it in our post-Christian nation. Euthanasia isn’t even a third-millennium ethical conundrum. Heaven help us when we have to address an ethical issue new to this century.

In a world where public perception is paramount, it is fascinating that, uncontested for the last eight and a half years, the Wikipedia entry on Euthanasia in New Zealand, viewed by about 15,000 people a year, has:

The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, part of the Anglican Communion and the second largest church in New Zealand, believes that euthanasia has a place in society.

The Anglican Church, of course, has no such “belief”.

The perceptive TV series, Boston Legal, Season 2, Episode 16, dealt with a court case involving a husband ending his wife’s life with an overdose of morphine. The shock moment is when viewers realise the husband was having an affair with the nurse who provided the morphine. The programme raises questions such as, to whom does my life belong? It suggested that families often act to end their own suffering. Denny Crane, speaking about euthanising his father says, “We put him out of our misery.”

To conclude, let’s be clear what we are, concretely, talking about. If euthanasia is legalised in NZ, going by overseas rates, about 1,400 deaths a year here would be by euthanasia – about four a day.

If it is not by agility in ethical theories, nor by the teachings of churches, is the public and parliamentarian opinion to be moulded by the hands of journalists? I quote from the article I began this post with:

Jacinda Ardern said she would support the bill, but her decision should have no baring on which way Labour MPs voted.

This is a serious debate – about life and death. It requires the ability to sift through subtle distinctions (say between Natural Law and Proportionalism). Are we really going to allow such a serious debate to be primarily framed by people such as reporters and subeditors who cannot even distinguish “baring” from “bearing”?


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image: from the Exit International website:

Suicide machine harnesses 3D printing technology

A high-tech ‘suicide machine’ is being touted by a euthanasia advocacy group. It’s called the Sarco capsule, and it has a single, simple purpose: to help you commit suicide, painlessly and efficiently.

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