Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

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

 

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.

 

 

Step off the sidelines

June 17, 2017

The euthanasia debate is back on and if there is one thing we can’t afford to do, it is to sit on the sidelines.

What I mean by that, of course, is wriggling out of the debate by saying “oh, I’m not sure what I would do personally, but I guess if others wanna do it it’s up to them”.

I have heard that line probably more than any other in the discussions I’ve had about euthanasia. Many of us feel a bit icky about the idea, and yet think that we have no right to interfere if others want to be euthanased.

It’s their choice, after all, isn’t it? And who are we to get in between another human being and what they want?

Aside from the fact that it defeats the point of a democratic society, there is another problem to deal with.

We interfere with individual freedom all the time. And we do it because we believe that individual freedom has to be balanced against a thing called the “social good”, which means “what is best for the rest of us”.

We do not give individuals the freedom to take anything they see and happen to like. We call that stealing and it is a crime. We do not give individuals the freedom to have sex with whoever they would like, whenever they would like. We call that rape, or incest, or abuse depending on the situation. And they are crimes.

And at present we do not give anyone the right to kill, or help to kill, someone. We call that murder. And it is a crime.

Any change to murder laws, and you and I ought to be on high alert. We ought to be looking very carefully at what is changing, and why.

We ought to be looking at what has happened overseas, we ought to especially be looking at the risks involved, but most of all we ought to be looking at who loses out with such laws. After all, for every social change we make there are people who benefit and people who are harmed.

In this case, harm means murder. And that is very serious because once we are dead, we cannot come back.

So if euthanasia laws do result in some people being harmed, saying that we personally feel a bit unsure but we’re happy to let others do what they please is a little like saying we’re not sure about slavery laws, but we’re happy to let others do as they please.

It is unethical, because our silence creates victims.

On the other hand, if your reading makes you certain such laws are what is best for our society, why would you want to stay silent? Surely, we should all speak up for what is good, right and best for all of us.

It is no secret I believe that euthanasia laws absolutely will create victims. That is to say, based on the evidence from overseas, safeguards like consent, age restrictions and illness restrictions will gradually be eroded. And of course, a law without safeguards is by definition not safe.

That matters to me because I have a vested interest in the future. I have a little boy whom these laws will affect in one way or another. And that is the point. We are all connected, and our actions do impact other people, as much as we like to imagine that they don’t.

So we can all keep pretending ethics are personal opinion, but the fact remains that the victims of bad laws are real.

That alone should be enough to convince us that the sidelines are not an option in a debate about death.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

 

 

 

 

The right to die

March 13, 2017

For the last couple of days I’ve been really blessed to be part of a very respectful, sincere and personal discussion online over the subject of euthanasia.

It was all sparked by this little video.

I’m so glad to be talking about it, and hearing those who disagree, simply because I think it is a topic most of us haven’t really bothered to listen in on yet. We simply make up our minds, then move on.

But when you get digging through that 21,000 high stack of submissions made on the bill, you find an unbelievably vast array of life experiences and reasons both for an against euthanasia. It really makes you think. It might even change your mind.

As I mentioned to those in the discussion online, I made up my mind on this issue after a huge amount of reading and research. Initially I didn’t think it was such a bad idea. By the end of my reading I was convinced it is a terrible idea.

The reason (if you are interested) goes a little something like this: Euthanasia laws create a right to die, for people who fit a certain category, and generally are introduce with very good protections in place. However, over time, people in excluded categories begin to claim their right to die is being discriminated against. As a brief internet search shows, this is already happening in countries where euthanasia is legal for the depressed, children and the elderly without terminal illness, among others.

So, the evidence shows us that when we create a right to die, the original restrictions around it are soon challenged, and removed. After all, if there is a right to die, how can we tell some people they are not allowed it? It gets even harder to say no when international law shows that right to die being upheld by all sorts of people the law was never originally intended for.

As the groups of people allowed to die grows, the protections in the law weaken.

If the elderly can die when they feel life is complete, despite not suffering terminal illness, those being bullied and abused by relatives or pressured to pass on an inheritance, might easily end up euthanased. New Zealand’s media is full of stories of elderly people being abused like this, and through the budgeting service we help out with, I know elderly people often get themselves into dire financial straits because they love their children too much to say no.

The examples go on, with the disabled, the suicidal and those experiencing any sort of suffering at any time all being placed at risk by the trajectory this law places us on, in my view.

Add to this the fact that people are people, and we break the law. What is to stop us from doing so with euthanasia, where we would have to rely on difficult concepts like consent or coercion to decide if a person was murdered or not, instead of relying on the toxicology report or coroners findings? There is always a balance with every law between the freedom of choice for an individual and the potential impact on others in that society. Here, the potential impact includes undesired death, and to me, that is just too high a cost.

But that is just my voice. There are 16,000 others (that’s three in four submitters) who made their opposition clear on this, including doctors, vets, the terminally ill and Maori. If  you would prefer to hear their thoughts, head to www.16000voices.org.