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Euthanasia debate: Conflating youth suicide and assisted dying is a bad move

02 May 2019 10:41 AM | Philip Patston (Administrator)

by Graham Adams / 01 May, 2019 / Noted


mary english bill english

Former Prime Minister Sir Bill English and his wife Dr Mary English are fiercely opposed to the End of Life Choice Bill. Photo/Bauer Media/NZ Women's Weekly.

Opponents of David Seymour’End of Life Choice Bill are pulling out all the stops to kill it on May 22.

If you’re an opponent of assisted dying laws and you want to advance your cause, best not conflate the plight of suicidal young people and that of the terminally ill who are asking to shave a few days or weeks off the end of their lives to avoid the worst of their distress.

It didn’t work well for National MP Simon O’Connor, chairman of the Health select committee inquiry, when he asserted the same false equivalence in 2017 and ran into a storm of criticism. And it’s certainly not working for Dr Mary English right now.

A meme circulating on the internet featuring a photo of the Wellington GP beside the words: “If assisted suicide is a triumph for autonomy and choice, how can youth suicide be a tragedy?” has been howled down.

Libertarian columnist Damien Grant said that while there are good arguments against assisted suicide, that isn’t one of them.

Left-wing blogger Martyn Bradbury, who is staunchly opposed to assisted dying, described it as “ugly”.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick was similarly outraged, tweeting: “Young people are tragically opting out of their lives because they are not receiving support and they don’t have faith in a better future. They’ve had autonomy and choice stolen from them. Don’t dare equate that to people on their death bed seeking dignity in their final days.”

Others offered false equivalences of their own. As one wag put it: “If a planned heart transplant by a professional surgeon is a triumph of medical science, why is an unplanned heart transplant on a random pedestrian by an untrained amateur with a kitchen knife considered a tragedy?”

You know it’s a howler when even Renee Joubert, from Euthanasia-Free NZ, disowns it. She wrote: “I think it’s important to understand this meme in context. It was not created or published by Dr Mary English but by an Australian anti-euthanasia organisation.

“They took a sentence from her oral submission to Parliament’s Justice Committee, in which she was deliberately using this statement to illustrate a point.”

In fact, if you listen to Dr English’s submission, the words reproduced in the meme represent exactly the point she was making. There was no other context.

And it’s hardly unusual for opponents to make the same odious comparison. On Newstalk ZB in February, her husband, Sir Bill English, told Chris Lynch: “How do we tell young people not to consider suicide as a solution to their depression on the one hand but, on the other, say that if you ask for euthanasia, the state will organise it and provide a doctor?” 

You don’t have to be very thoughtful to see the clear difference between a depressed teenager who is going through a rough patch and a rational person who wants help to die to avoid the last, most distressing phase of a terminal illness.

The fact is opponents of assisted dying are pulling out all the stops to derail David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill at its second reading on May 22 and the meme featuring Dr English’s statement is just one example of the less-than-admirable tactics they are willing to employ.

On April 27, a group that calls themselves DefendNZ sent a 94-page booklet to every member of Parliament that features a variety of people — from the disabled to doctors — outlining why they don’t want assisted dying legislation passed.

Presumably in an effort to cast its net as wide as possible, the booklet also poses entirely irrelevant questions such as: “Is the End of Life Choice Bill a colonial imposition?”

It states: “The End of Life Choice Bill is largely deaf to Māori conceptions of people and death as well as tikanga Māori” — without acknowledging that the whole point of Seymour’s bill is that it provides only for voluntary assisted dying.

Under the bill’s provisions, Māori — like everyone else — would be entirely free to die in whichever manner they wanted. The bill has no implications for them apart from offering a choice.

On its website, under the heading “The Top 5 Reasons Why MPs Should Vote ‘No’ at the Second Reading”, DefendNZ encourages readers to contact their MP to ask them to vote against the bill.

One of the five reasons suggested to pass on to MPs includes the fact the debate in Parliament will be complex and time-consuming.

DefendNZ warns MPs there will be lengthy debates over amendments to the bill and to “expect the conversations to get longer and much more intense… Should the bill pass its second reading, the Committee of the Whole House stage will likely be extremely lengthy, as dozens of MPs try to fix the bill.”

This amounts to asking MPs: “Why not guarantee yourself an easier life by simply voting it down at the second reading?”

If comparing youth suicide and assisted dying for the terminally ill is an underhand tactic, this appeal to MPs’ self-interest must qualify as a new low in the debate.

We can expect a lot more public campaigning by opponents in the three weeks until MPs get to vote on whether to allow Seymour’s bill to proceed further. The last thing they want is for the bill to be allowed to go to a referendum at the next election because they fear — undoubtedly correctly — that they will lose. If the bill is voted down at its second or third reading, there will be no referendum.

Opponents also don’t want the bill to pass its second reading because it would give Parliament a chance to make it more palatable to those MPs who might approve of the terminally ill receiving an assisted death but baulk at the inclusion of people with “grievous and irremediable conditions”. (Seymour has proposed removing that clause as well as specifying that mental illness and disability alone will not satisfy eligibility criteria, among other changes.)

In other words, opponents don’t want the bill to have the chance of being amended in such a way that it answers many of the objections presented in submissions to the Justice select committee. They are determined to kill it as soon as possible.

The other circumstance that adds urgency to the campaign to sink Seymour’s bill quickly is that on June 19 more than a quarter of Australia’s population will get access to assisted dying when Victoria’s legislation takes effect.

Religious activists in New Zealand and Australia see the two nations as effectively one battlefield. They worry that more victories like Victoria’s will create a domino effect across both nations.

And they have reason to worry. Western Australia’s government is presenting its own bill in August or September, after a year-long, cross-party parliamentary inquiry recommended an assisted dying regime that would look very like the one David Seymour has proposed.

The fact it is a government bill and that support for assisted dying is running at well over 80 per cent in polls in Western Australia means there is a strong likelihood it will pass.

Queensland has a parliamentary inquiry under way that is considering assisted dying legislation for the first time in the state’s history. And another bill will be presented in New South Wales this year, after a Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill failed to pass in the NSW Upper House by just one vote in 2017.

The Australian organisation responsible for the Dr English meme is called Hope, an initiative dedicated to opposing assisted dying, which is allied to the Australian Family Association. The AFA is a Christian lobby group set up by Australia’s most famous Catholic political lobbyist, Bob Santamaria, in 1979.

Some New Zealanders will object to an overseas religious group attempting to influence our laws and will be tempted to respond in the same way as Judith Collins did in March when she learned the NRA was trying to meddle in our gun-law debate. She recommended they “Bugger off!”

Hope, however, appears to be hopeless — at creating effective memes, at least.

This recent extension of its mission across the Tasman certainly looks to have been more hindrance than help to those who are keen to kill Seymour’s bill.

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