“These polls rely on one or two very simple questions and, on a sensitive issue such as euthanasia, give people very little time or information to consider the issue in depth,” said Dr John Kleinsman.
The director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre was commenting on a recent survey prepared for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand Inc by Horizon Research.
He said the recent Health Select Committee process is a much better indicator of people’s real position because it involves a far more deliberative process than answering a single question telephone survey.
“Of the more than 21,000 people who wrote into the Health Select Committee to express their views on euthanasia and assisted suicide, more than 77% were opposed.”
What did the poll reveal?
The Horizon Research poll found New Zealanders support medical practitioners assisting adults to die by majorities ranging from 66% to 75% in specified circumstances.
- Where such a request has come from a mentally competent patient, 18 years or over, who has end stage terminal disease (e.g. cancer) and irreversible unbearable suffering: 75% support
- Where such a request has come from a mentally competent patient, 18 years and over, who has irreversible unbearable suffering which may not cause death in the immediate future (e.g. motor neurone disease or some other degenerative or irreversible condition): 66% support
“The level of overall support shown in this poll falls within the broad range of many such polls conducted over the recent years,” said Kleinsman.
Polls do not allow people to engage in the complexities
Kleinsman said said polls like this one do nothing to help people engage with the complexities of this issue and they are not at all productive in helping us to have a robust and better informed debate.
“The key issue for MP’s and policy makers is less about the overall number of people who might support it and much more about whether such a regime can be implemented safely.”
He said other research around the world has shown that the more people become aware of the complexity and risks associated with euthanasia, the less likely they are to support it.
There has never been a more dangerous time
“I maintain that there has never been a more dangerous time to introduce euthanasia or assisted suicide in New Zealand,” said Kleinsman.
He pointed out that New Zealand is currently in the middle of Elder Abuse Awareness week.
“And this is a serious issue for us in New Zealand, one that is increasing in magnitude despite our best efforts to bring the numbers down.”
“Add to that last week’s OECD Report which shows that we have the highest rates of youth suicide in the OECD, more than twice that of the United States and almost twice that of Australia.”
“This is not the time to send a contradictory message about the acceptability of suicide.”
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It is about one year ago that Lecretia Seales took her case for euthanasia and assisted suicide to the High Court in Wellington. One of the declarations she sought was whether her particular situation and circumstances (having a progressive advanced incurable illness)
could be seen to fall outside the long-standing laws against assisting suicide and against homicide.
Justice David Collins, the judge who ruled on the case, was clear that the law would regard any such acts as illegal. He then concluded that it was only for Parliament to consider any such changes.
In June 2015, a matter of weeks after the conclusion of the High Court case, former List MP Maryan Street presented a petition to Parliament on behalf of the Voluntary Euthanasia
Society of New Zealand. That petition was subsequently forwarded to the Health Select Committee, which duly called for public submissions on the matter.
To complicate matters further, in October ACT Party MP David Seymour decided to put his own Private Members Bill into the ballot, calling for euthanasia and assisted suicide.
That Bill could be drawn at any time irrespective of where the select committee investigation is at. The provisions in Mr Seymour’s Bill would make “assisted dying” available to anyone
over 18 years of age on the basis of “unbearable suffering unable to be relieved in a manner the person considers tolerable” — virtually assisted suicide/euthanasia on demand.
To date, no official reports have come from either the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives (who receive and process public submissions) or the Health Select Committee. What we know unofficially is that more than 15,000 New Zealand individuals, experts and organisations, an unprecedented number for a petition such as this and far exceeding the expectations of everyone, including the Office of the Clerk, which is still processing submissions more than three months after the close off date of February 1.
What happens next is the Health Select Committee will arrange for those who want to appear in person to speak to their submission. This will take some months as the committee has a limited number of hours and is also dealing with other business. All in all, it is not unreasonable to conclude that it won’t be able to deliver its report until sometime in 2017.
In the meantime it is possible that MP Seymour’s Bill could be pulled from the Private Members Ballot. If this were to happen before the committee had released its report, Parliament would find itself in a unique situation — having to debate the desirability of a euthanasia and assisted suicide law before the results of a significant investigation on the issue could be presented.
Should that happen, my view is that MPs should vote Seymour’s bill down at the first opportunity. The considered information and views of 15,000 New Zealanders should not be ignored — people’s contributions, both for and against change, must inform any future parliamentary debate about this complex issue.
In the meantime, yet another major Court in the United States has ruled that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide.
In a judgment issued on May 3, a New York Court drew attention to “the risks that could be presented to the elderly, poor, socially disadvantaged, and those without access to good medical care; and the role of treatable symptoms such as pain and depression in creating a desire for lethal medications”.
It also noted that “most doctors lack a sufficiently close relationship to their patients to appropriately evaluate a request for help in ending life, and expressed the concern that it could open the door to euthanasia of those incapable of giving consent”.
This ruling adds to a long list of jurisdictions around the world that have rejected law changes in recent months.
Dr John Kleinsman is director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre – the Nathaniel Centre.