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Justice Select Committee hears New Zealand bishops’ concern over proposed euthanasia law

Posted on: June 22, 2018 6:58 AM
Photo Credit: Darko Stojanovic / Pixabay

Bishops in New Zealand opposed to the legalisation of medically assisted suicide and euthanasia have cited examples from Europe to warn that “safeguards” imposed when the law is first changed could later be loosened. The seven diocesan bishops in New Zealand are all opposed to the End of Life Choice Bill, which has been introduced by parliamentarian David Seymour. This week, Bishop Richard Randerson made an oral submission to the Parliament’s justice select committee on behalf of the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia’s Tikanga Pakeha.

The Bill proposes that New Zealanders over the age of 18 who suffer from terminal illness, are experiencing “unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved” and who understand the consequences of their decision, should become eligible for assisted dying, provided certain safeguards are met.

But the bishops stressed a number of concerns about the Bill. The cited research in the US state of Oregon, which enacted the Death with Dignity Act in 1997. This shows that most Oregonians who seek early death aren’t morbidly afraid of being unable to control their pain; but are more preoccupied by “existential fears”, such as losing their autonomy; losing their ability to do things which make life enjoyable, or losing their dignity.

“We should respond to people who are suffering those things by caring for them,” Bishop Richard told Anglican Taonga after the Parliamentary hearing. He also suggested that a law change in New Zealand might usher in a gathering momentum for as it has done in Europe:

“In Switzerland now it’s pretty much ‘death on demand,’” he said. “You don't have to meet any criteria. It’s enough to say: ‘Look: I’ve had enough. Give me the way out.’”

He said that in the Netherlands, 1882 people were euthanised in 2002. That number had risen to 4829 by 2013.

And in Belgium, 235 people had chosen to end their lives this way in 2003 – the number increasing to 2303 in 2015.

The Seymour Bill proposes a Parliamentary oversight committee as a safeguard to ensure the law isn’t misused; but the bishops say that this could turn in to a rubber-stamping exercise, as it has in parts of Europe where euthanasia is lawful. “In Belgium, for example, the oversight committee is made up entirely of pro-euthanasia people,” Bishop Richard said “And I’m not sure if anything gets turned down by them. There's a predisposition to say: ‘OK’”.

The Interchurch Bioethics Council also presented its oral submission against the Bill to the select committee. Dr Graham O’Brien, an Anglican priest who co-chairs the ICBC, told Anglican Taonga about the “philosophical shortcomings” of the proposed law.

“The problem is that if death is good for some, or right for some – then you have to extend that and say that death is a good and a right for all,” he said. “So, there’s actually no legal reason why you would have an age limit; or a limit about conditions.

“Because if you can say that death is good for someone who is terminal, then you have to say that death is a good option for a younger person who is suffering deep and prolonged depression, for example.”

He cited the 2016 case of a young Dutch woman, who had suffered prolonged sexual abuse in her childhood, who was allowed to go ahead with assisted suicide because, in the view of the Dutch Euthanasia Commission, her post-traumatic stress was incurable.

“How can you say that her suffering is different or less horrendous than someone who’s facing terminal cancer”, he asked. “That’s why this type of law is nigh-on impossible to constrain.

“In Canada they are having class action suits, because their law is seen to be too restrictive. People are saying: ‘Hang on. We want to be able to do this too.’ And they've only had that law for two years.”

While the Bill is opposed by all diocesan bishops, three other bishops – Jim White, the Assistant Bishop of Auckland, and retired bishops John Bluck and David Coles – have written a submission in support of the bill. “We believe that for some individuals with a terminal illness, assisted dying can be a good and moral choice and that we should offer medically competent assistance in carrying out such a choice,” they said.