Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

Remembering well

November 11, 2017

I remember the sound of gunfire going off as we stood huddled under the doorway for protection from stray bullets. The roofs were tin, which couldn’t save us. I officially had my first introduction to war – a memory which would shape forever what I remember on Armistice Day.

It was Ivory Coast, and the exact moment at which this memory was forged is carved indelibly into my mind. It was midnight, the start of the new millennium. I know because the television was on, showing the celebrations occurring around the world at the exact moment we stood huddled against those bullets. I can still see the fireworks going off over the Sydney Harbour Bridge in my mind’s eye.

The sound of celebration, I remember thinking, was remarkably like the sound of gunfire. Even if it is the gunfire of drunken soldiers letting off steam in yet another dusty African civil war.

We came home to the peaceful green of New Zealand soon after that, and for a brief while I became a pacifist, reading up on the 800 conscientious objectors sent to prison during World War 2 in New Zealand. They were my heroes, until I started reading up on World War 2 and Adolf Hitler. Suddenly, saying the enemy was “fear and ignorance” or other such platitudes seemed too insubstantial to stand up to reality.

Reluctantly, I decided war is sometimes necessary, because man is sometimes evil. Like most of us, my ideas and ideals about war were then formed by movies, history lessons, and visits to old war sites around New Zealand or Europe. Like some of us, my thoughts about war were shaped by stories from a grandfather who survived it. Like a few of us, my opinions about war were molded by living in a country collapsing under the weight of a civil war.

We are 99 years from the first ever Armistice Day celebrations, and 72 years from the end of World War Two, and how I remember today is still changing.

Now, I have a son and a husband. The shape of war is no longer impersonal, the idea of good or evil no longer a generation removed. Those shapeless words, “sacrifice” and “service”, have been filled in, given flesh and blood, faces. What it took, the kind of people it took, to gain us the peace we enjoy, becomes more real every year.

In his best-selling book “Man’s search for meaning”, psychiatrist and neurologist Dr Viktor Frankl writes “there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent”. He wrote as a Jew who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz. But he was not comparing Nazis to their prison-camp victims. Those words came after he wrote about the Nazi soldiers who tried, in whatever way possible, to show mercy in Auschwitz, and about the fellow-prisoners who out-competed the guards for cruelty in their own desperation to survive.

Decent people, and indecent people, can be found standing on every side of every battle in life, said Frankl. The only difference between them, he observed, was choice.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This Armistice Day, I am remembering the race of decent men who made the choice to earn us the priceless gift of peace, and the parents who raised them.

What, and who, will you remember?

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Dealing with death

September 16, 2017

One week out from a general election, our politicians just can’t seem to stay away from life and death issues.

Last week, it was abortion. This week, National MP Simon O’Connor got himself into hot water over the issue of euthanasia. He criticised the Labour leader for supporting both a zero suicide rate and euthanasia laws.

His boss, Bill English, texted him to tell him he was wrong to link the two, which makes you wonder whether English actually read the report on euthanasia that O’Connor, along with politicians of other stripes, produced recently.

On page 43 the report deals explicitly with the arguments differentiating suicide from euthanasia. The section points out that one of the world’s most important health organisations recognises that it is actually very difficult to do so.

“The World Health Organization acknowledges significant definitional difficulties in its most recent publication on the issue”, we read. “In its 2014 report, “Preventing Suicide: A global imperative”, it defines suicide as the act of deliberately killing oneself.”

That definition describes precisely what New Zealand euthanasia laws will aid people to do.

Our Kiwi report then points out that some try to differentiate between rational and irrational suicide, but again, the experts are not on board. Here’s what youth counsellors and suicide prevention organisations say:

“Suicide is always undertaken in response to some form of suffering, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. All forms are deliberate and intentional.”

What that means is that suicide, euthanasia and assisted suicide all involve deliberately choosing death as a response to suffering.

And it isn’t just experts pointing out that the difference is difficult to pinpoint. Check out the response from our politicians to O’Connor’s comparison: According to Prime Minister Bill English, “we don’t do that”. According to Labour leader Jacinda Ardern “it’s just wrong”. Even the author of the End of Life Choice bill himself simple said “the two issues could not be further apart”.

In fact ACT’s David Seymour dismissed O’Connor’s claim using the example of suicidal young people, a group we are rightly fighting desperately to save in New Zealand. But in Belgium where euthanasia is legal, a suicidal young woman won the right to euthanasia. Why? Because the courts agree that death is a reasonable and good response to suffering – physical or mental.

The issues are not quite so far apart as Seymour claims.

That is exactly why definitions matter. If international and local experts can’t clearly differentiate euthanasia and suicide, if our politicians are unwilling to enlighten us, then what hope have the rest of us got when we are trying to explain the difference to those suffering mental anguish around us?

The horror of suicide is an all-to-frequent reality in this country, so the question is critical. Besides that, family and friends left in mourning by a suicide, or those supporting the suicidal, have a right to know euthanasia laws will not mix our messages on the value of living through suffering.

If our fight against suicide is to be effective we simply must be able to explain why some physical suffering justifies death while the mental torture that is severe depression, or bipolar, or schizophrenia, does not. Don’t all involve horrendous, prolonged mental or physical pain? Don’t all involve loss of dignity at certain points? Don’t all involve loss of quality of life? Don’t all involve a shortened life expectancy?

When compassion means allowing some to choose death to relieve suffering, how can it also mean convincing others to live through it?

If we cannot answer these questions, then surely, we have to face the fact that what we are fighting with one hand, we are feeding with the other.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

Making a choice

September 9, 2017

I would like to make a deal with the leader of the Labour Party.

I will vote for you, Jacinda Ardern, if you can convince me that decriminalising abortion will not take the lives of a more living human beings.

I don’t want to believe it does, after all. The implications for many women I know and love are, if abortion takes an innocent human life, almost unutterable. But the implications are worse for the child, and that’s why it is important I know, absolutely, before I can vote for you.

From my years of reading about this issue one thing sticks out: those who support abortion argue about women’s rights and protection. Those who oppose abortion do so because they say it ends the life of a living human being.

That second claim seems to me to be rather astonishing. Women have rights and need protecting, of course. But if the thing inside our womb is also a living human being, then it too has rights and needs protecting, and I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

The question then, that I absolutely MUST answer, is whether the thing produced by the combining of an egg and a sperm, and which spends nine months growing inside a woman’s womb, is in fact, a living human being.

Some tell me it is just an embryo, or a foetus. However, this doesn’t describe what species something belongs to. It simply describes a stage of growth. So if two human beings reproduce, it logically follows that they produce a human embryo or foetus. As the pro-life atheist Christopher Hitchens says, as a member of the human species, it then ought to have all the rights, including the right to life, that the rest of us enjoy.

Others have told me the thing is just part of a woman’s body. But the thing has its own unique DNA, quite different to the DNA replicated identically inside every other cell belonging to the individual we call its mother. In other words, it has its own individual biological identity. And that makes sense to me, because we know that a woman does not go on to give birth to a bit of her own body, but rather to another individual, nine months later. We also know that a woman cannot have an abortion unless she is pregnant; the same state by which she produces another individual.

But is this individual human alive? Well, if it isn’t alive, why do we need to have an abortion? We have abortions because that thing inside us is growing from the moment of conception, and growth is one of the signs of life, according to my 6th form biology class. Age, viability, or any other philosophical or biological measure by which we attempt to claim something is alive only leads to horrible ethical conundrums. For example, if the ability to survive outside the womb alone determines whether you are alive or not, then young children, the very old, and the disabled, are not alive and we may do as we please with them.

Some say the fact another living human being is involved doesn’t matter: That women simply need protecting from the way things used to be. But we don’t live in a society that looks anything like it did when abortion was illegal. Besides, who says that the rights and protections of a mother and her child are mutually exclusive?

You talked about choice on Monday night, Ardern. But if abortion involves ending the lives of human being, I can’t vote for you.

Like the child, I would have no choice.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

When losing means you won

September 2, 2017

Sometimes victory can look a lot like defeat. This week the New Zealand pro-life movement had perhaps one of its most important victories in years, but I doubt they realised it, because it looked a lot like defeat.

It came in the form of the Pro Life Club’s disaffiliation from the Auckland University Students’ Association. Not only was the club disaffiliated, but clubs with “a similar ideology” are banned from joining the association in future. That rather broad, loose wording, which might include any number of clubs, is yet to come under the steady eye of the law, so the game is not over yet.

But at this stage it is looking remarkably like the underdog came out on top, and for several reasons.

The least important is that there are over 40,000 students at Auckland University. How many of them belong to the Auckland University Students’ Association I could not find out. But only 2,700 turned out for the vote. If that is the entirety of the AUSA membership, it doesn’t say much for the Association. If it is only a small portion of the AUSA, it doesn’t say much for the members.

About 1600 turned out to vote in favour of disaffiliation, and about 1000 turned out to vote against. What happened to the other 100, heaven knows. The journalist certainly didn’t, otherwise he would have told us.

All-in-all though, the numbers surprised me. They really aren’t that bad for a club that is meant to represent ideas long-since regarded as ridiculous.

But the bigger picture is the more important one. Because, of course, the Students for Choice have finally shown that they are, in fact, not.

They are the Students Against Choice. That is because they are against those who disagree with them. And if you are against those who disagree with you, you absolutely must be against choice. After all, we only have choice when we have two or more options that really, truly differ from one another. We have a very poor choice in foods if all that lies on our plates are apples. Throw on an orange and we’ve got something different. We have got real, honest choice.

That’s the horrible thing about being pro-choice (in the truest sense of the word). It means being  ‘”pro” your opponent. It means fighting for his or her rights as much as you fight for your own.

Doing in your opponent is simply not an option. It is, in fact, the underarm bowl of (in this case) student politics.

And underarm bowls don’t go down well with Joe Public. We are a tolerant nation, you see. We abide by the motto “live and let live”. Minority groups can scrap among themselves over who is right and who is wrong, but at the end of the day, what we all really want is a fair fight.

The moment one little group starts picking off the competition, they start looking mighty mean. They start looking scary, even. Worse, the victim starts looking harmless, and rather deserving of our pity and support.

That’s why the Pro Life Club, which exited dejectedly from the field this week, ought rather to be celebrating.

In the eyes of Average Joe, they have just become the victims of an underarm bowl. Even better, their opponents are the perpetrators, and are starting to look rather mean-spirited and narrow-minded in spite of their name.

And in this debate, winning over the public is far more important than winning an affiliation vote.

There is one final reason, though, why the Pro Life Club ought to celebrate: Your opponent only sends an underarm bowl your way when they really, truly believe you have a good shot at winning the game.

Like I said, sometimes defeat is a victory.

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

Hope for mental health?

August 19, 2017

An important issue has lurked on the edges of the limelight for most of this election, sadly shunted out of reach of the main beams by leadership changes or falls from grace.

For weeks now politicians of most persuasions have made policy announcements or passing comments about it, but it still hasn’t had all the attention it deserves.

I’m talking about the topic of mental health in New Zealand. Specifically, our suicide statistics, which set us apart in the developed world for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, our youth suicide rate is so high that it made headlines on the BBC in June. “The rate of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people is twice as high as the US rate and almost five times that of Britain,” ran the story. The article focused on what might be behind that rate, and the conclusions punted to the British public were far starker and more blunt that what we are brave enough to say.

“There is a “toxic mix” of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem”, says an expert in the article.

But beyond the foreign news headlines lies yet another staggering statistic; that New Zealand’s rural population suffers from far higher rates of suicide than does its urban one. In fact,”suicide rates are higher in rural areas at 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 for every 100,000 people living in cities”, said yet another report earlier this year.

In total last year, the equivalent of 11 people each week took their own lives in what must be acknowledged as our nation’s mental health plague.

But again, rural or youth suicide isn’t the problem. It is a symptom – a symptom caused by a bad relationship with drink, with partners, or with guns. A symptom of broken families, abuse and poverty.

And that is where politicians and policy announcements come in. So far the subject of suicide has been treated as if it exists in isolation. So far we have heard about how to help mental health services cope through extra funding, or programmes that might be put in place to breed resilience. These are important parts of care, but they don’t address the problems.

Problems like family violence or child abuse or bad relationships that are linked so strongly to our negative mental health statistics. Problems like the breakdown of our communities that leads to isolation and an inability to connect to someone-anyone-who can help.

We are not, in other words, talking about causes, only the consequences.

That simply won’t do.

If we are to start seeing a shift in our statistics, surely we have to get beyond the band aids and start looking at why depression or mental health issues are so prevalent in New Zealand in the first place?

Surely we have to start scratching beyond the surface – no matter how scary it might feel- to find out what stark realities hide beneath.

And surely if strong, healthy, loving families, or connected communities, are linked to low suicide and mental health illness rates, as the Ministry of Health seems to suggest, then we need to start talking about how to nurture these. Yes, we may end up tripping over the toes of some of our deepest values, like the individualism that makes it so hard to hold families and communities together here, but saving lives is worth a little compromise, I think.

We can’t keep kicking the issues around like a political football. Surely when it comes to tackling an issue as serious as suicide, we are all on the same team.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

 

 

A good society

August 5, 2017

If you are looking for some light reading over the weekend I have a suggestion.

Buried deep within the websites of various news media outlets this week I found a shockingly easy-to-read, terrifyingly informative 50-page report by the Health Committee.

I know, it sounds suspicious. Government reports aren’t easy to read, and they are certainly not very informative most of the time.

Somehow, though, this one is. Perhaps it is to do with the subject matter. You see, the report is on euthanasia laws.

Yes, this week the results of a two-year long investigation, involving a record-smashing 21,000 submissions, 108 hours of oral submissions, and testimony from experts and citizens from faraway lands, landed.

Unfortunately, it landed on the same day that new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was asked about her baby plans. Obviously, that little scuffle was more important than the most significant potential law change facing New Zealanders in years, so the most significant document relating to that most significant potential law change was buried.

Buried under layers, and layers of opinion.

Anyway. The main bit to know is that the Health Committee made no recommendation. It did not recommend in favour, nor did it recommend against, a law change.

The other main bit to know is that 80 per cent of those who submitted were opposed to euthanasia laws being introduced.

But the real juice was in between all of that. It was in the fact that New Zealander’s clearly wore their hearts on their sleeves for this Committee.

There were those who came to talk about their experiences of family suicide, the suffering and death of loved ones, or their own illness or disability. There were plenty of experts from medical groups, palliative care groups, and mental health groups. They shared their thoughts, and also their hearts, on how euthanasia laws would impact their patients and themselves.

The interesting bit, perhaps, was that the reasons Kiwis oppose euthanasia laws were far more diverse and emotional than I realised. Take, for example, those who spoke up saying they were concerned for members of the ” LGBTIQ community, where legally assisted dying might be seen as incongruous with anti-suicide campaigns.” Or, take those who spoke about their own experiences of depression and concerns that euthanasia would have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Euthanasia’s current champion, ACT leader David Seymour, has tried to downplay all the opposition by hinting that the Catholics conspired to tilt the inquiry process. But I have to say, it is rather impossible to hold that view after reading the full document. There are simply too many reasons, with too much humanity in them, to think that opposition to euthanasia laws is mostly institutional.

And that brings me to another point about the report. It is quite fascinating to see all of the arguments for, and against, euthanasia laws laid out right next to each other with international evidence thrown in. You can’t help feeling that compassion belongs to both sides of the argument. But you also can’t help noticing that the arguments basically boiled down to individual rights versus the collective good.

It seems to me that on the one side are people who basically believe that a few mistakes (read: people euthanased against their will) are a fair price to pay for the right to death. On the other side are those who think protecting a few lives is a justifiable reason for foregoing a right.

And that, of course, reveals the question we all must ask ourselves. Which do we value more, rights or lives? Which laws, ultimately, will give us a good, and compassionate, society?

So, if you haven’t already, go and listen to other Kiwis by reading that report. The question is far too important to answer on our own.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life issues and the media, a battle over bias?

July 27, 2017

Voice for Life’s Hamilton branch invited me to speak at its AGM a few weeks ago on the way life issues are covered in the media. It was a fascinating topic, and I spent a good amount of time thinking, or reading, about it.

I even spent a couple of days scrolling through news sites looking up every key work I could think of to do with those subjects. I looked up research reports on media content and survey’s on Kiwi journalists.

Why?

Well, I suspected the main questions I would get would be on bias. And biased journalists.

So I wanted to check out the data for myself.

It led me to some rather controversial conclusions. I do, for instance, think there is a bias in the media against pro-life positions. But I don’t think it is necessarily the journalists’ fault.

Let me explain.

As I hunted through story after story looking at headlines, the amount of space dedicated to each point of view, and the way in which “experts” were treated (was credibility undermined or over-emphasized, for instance), something started to stick out.

Over and over again those who held a pro-euthanasia or pro-abortion stance expressed their argument through a human story.

There was Lecretia Seales, looking stunning as she held up the moon in the twilight. She shared an incredibly intimate journey with us as she walked to the edges of life, and her story of cancer was her argument. It was right and fair that journalists reported her story with respect, and gave her space to fully express her views.

She was featured along with Helen Kelly, Maryan Street, David Seymour and others who were willing to open up their pasts and their hearts to us on the topic of euthanasia.

But over and over again, the pro-life camp held up a dry, crusty bunch of facts – occasionally producing a press release in place of a real person.

And that just doesn’t cut it. In a world where media moguls are relics of the past and media companies are crumbling empires, journalists are desperate for compelling stories to get us to read.

But even if those pressures weren’t keeping audience numbers at the forefront of their minds, every journalist knows that people stories are powerful stories.

That is because we can all connect with what it means to be human. We all know fear, love, anxiety, hope or any other emotion. We can’t connect – emotionally at least – with facts.

That means facts are best seen as condiments bringing out the full flavour of the main dish – the story – for us.

Now, interestingly, as the euthanasia debate has developed over the last four years, more and more personal stories of those suffering terminal illness, yet opposed to euthanasia, did begin to emerge.

Presumably, these courageous people realised that their story was the best way to explain their argument, and that they had to share it if they wanted to see coverage of a different sort. Jayne Malcolm was one such courageous, stunning, human.

And the stories of Jayne Malcolm were as beautifully, respectfully reported as were those of Lecretia Seales,  in my opinion.

Did she get on the front page of Stuff.co.nz? Not that I remember. But then she didn’t launch a court case over euthanasia, thereby doing something highly newsworthy on a hot topic.

So you can see where my talk went. When it comes to life issues in the media, those in the pro-life camps play a part in biasing the debate…because they won’t tell their stories.

Bravely, right after the talk one of the members of VFL Hamilton told me her story. She was the survivor of an abortion.

“But you know,” she finished “a lot of us in the pro-life movement are there because of stories like that.”

Well then, let’s make the world a richer place and start telling them.