Kua oti kaota taotu te pihere – We are all connected

Published on 4th Oct, 2020

WelCom October 2020

The Catholic Bishops of Aotearoa New Zealand 2020 Election Statement begins with a quotation from Pope Francis’ Laudato si’: “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment needs to be joined to a sincere love for or fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” In their 2020 Election Statement–Whakapuaki Pōti 2020,  the New Zealand Bishops urge voters to say ‘no’ to the euthanasia referendum. They ask that voters give ‘serious thoughts’ to the effect of cannabis on vulnerable young people when considering the cannabis referendum. The Bishops’ advice about the two referendum questions is reproduced here.

The Nathaniel Report August 2020 has extensive information about End of Life Choice Act 2019 and the proposed Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill at: www.nathaniel.org.nz

Further information about both referendum questions is at: referendums.govt.nz

1. Introduction:

Referendums with the 2020 General Election

The 2020 General Election presents voters with two referendum questions related to euthanasia and recreational cannabis. The euthanasia-assisted suicide law (End of Life Choice Act 2019) will become the law if a majority of voters support it in the referendum. If a majority of voters support the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill referendum, the next Government would need to introduce further legislation to legalise recreational cannabis.

Both issues require serious reflection in order to appreciate their complexity and the community impact they will have. The referendum questions presume that you, the voter, have read and reflected on those two pieces of legislation. But we wonder how many people have read the legislation. We raise the question: Is this the best way to determine our future when considering moral questions that will have huge impacts on our communities in the years to come?

An informed decision requires consideration of the economic, social, whanaungatanga-kinship and cultural factors that limit many people’s freedom to choose. Well-intended laws can have significant negative repercussions because of matters not anticipated by the law or because we don’t all have access to the same choices.

2. First referendum content:

End of Life Choice Act Referendum

Referendum Question: Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2019 coming into force?

Facing one’s own death, or walking that journey with a loved one, is challenging. In urging voters to say ‘No’ to the End of Life Choice Act, we speak from the extensive experience of healthcare providers, chaplains, priests and pastoral workers who care daily for the dying and their whānau. Their experience includes an awareness of people’s vulnerability at the end of life, and the knowledge that quality palliative care can effectively manage physical pain as well as emotional, spiritual and psychological suffering.

We believe that the people most at risk if we legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide are those most vulnerable to the suggestion they would be ‘better off dead’ – our elderly and disabled people who find themselves within the scope of the Act.

Our views on the morality of assisted death are well known. However, the 2020 euthanasia referendum question is not primarily about the morality and desirability of euthanasia or assisted suicide. Rather, it is about the robustness of the End of Life Choice Act 2019 – whether it is “fit for purpose”. The greatest risk posed by the Act is a premature or wrongful death from which there is no return. Therefore, we have to be confident as a society that the Act provides an extremely high safety threshold. As Bishops we believe it fails to meet that threshold.

The key questions to ask yourself before voting on this referendum are: Does the proposed law have adequate safeguards? Can the safeguards be effectively implemented in the society of today? Are there examples of safer and better laws in other countries?

We offer the following additional points for your consideration:

The New Zealand law is broader in scope and more liberal than one recently passed in Victoria, Australia, as well as laws in the United States. It will expose much larger numbers of people to the dangers of a premature death, people who are currently well-served by palliative care.

The End of Life Choice Act provides for only one choice – there is no corresponding ‘right’ to request quality palliative care. Recent reports from Canada and the US show that numerous patients choose assisted death for reasons related to a lack of palliative care. This will potentially affect the most socially disadvantaged amongst us, especially those living in areas where quality palliative care is not accessible. Neither does the Act require that a person first access palliative care when it is available.

Overseas research shows that the demand for euthanasia is not driven by pain but by a range of personal and emotional factors, including the fear of being a burden and the fear of being disabled. These fears reflect negative attitudes towards the elderly and disabled that we know run deep in our society.

Existing New Zealand law already allows people to say ‘no’ to any medical treatment and to receive whatever level of pain relief they need, even to the point of being sedated if that is required. This is not euthanasia, and nobody needs to die in pain.

Key medical groups oppose the Act, including the NZ Medical Association, Hospice NZ, Palliative Care Nurses NZ and palliative medicine doctors. The Medical Association has publicly stated that it will be impossible for doctors or nurses to detect coercion amongst those requesting euthanasia.

Requests for an assisted death are typically driven by depression, something that is also extremely difficult to detect. There is already a shortage of mental-health specialists in New Zealand. The Act does not require a patient to talk about a decision to end their life with a family member or other significant person.

In Canada, what was initially promoted as an important safeguard – limiting assisted death to those facing a ‘foreseeable death’ – has been judged by the Quebec Superior Court to be an obstacle to free choice for people with long-term conditions or disabilities. There is a risk of this kind of judicial widening of the Act happening in New Zealand.

Elder abuse currently affects about 10 per cent of our elderly despite the best efforts to prevent it. Voting ‘Yes’ to euthanasia in this context is dangerous. It is also naïve to think the Act can provide sufficient protection against this risk.

Promoted by Bishop Patrick Dunn President, NZ Catholic Bishops Conference. 

3. Second referendum content

Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill Referendum

Referendum Question: Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

The cannabis referendum is about whether or not to legalise recreational cannabis. It is not about medicinal cannabis. Regulations to provide and improve access to quality medicinal cannabis products were passed in April 2020. A 2018 law change already allows terminally ill people to use cannabis for pain relief without being prosecuted.

If a majority of people vote ‘Yes’ in the recreational cannabis referendum then, after the election, the incoming Government ‘can introduce a Bill to Parliament that would legalise and control cannabis’. A majority ‘Yes’ vote will not make recreational cannabis legal without that extra step.

Aotearoa New Zealand has 237 Catholic schools with over 66,000 students. As bishops and as the proprietors of many of those schools, we are keenly aware that our rangatahi, our young people, particularly those still at school, are the group in society most vulnerable to the effects of cannabis. Many school principals have expressed deep reservations about the wisdom of legalising recreational cannabis.

The referendum proposal sets 20 as the minimum age for buying and using cannabis. It seems counter-intuitive to believe that an age limit will stop young people using cannabis if cannabis becomes more easily available in the community. They will likely access it more easily, in the same way that under-18s currently access alcohol, tobacco, and, cannabis; primarily through friends and family.

Given these points, we think people do need to give serious thoughts to the issue, and we hope you will use your vote in an informed way that considers the impact of legalised recreational cannabis on the young and vulnerable in our communities.

Promoted by Bishop Patrick Dunn President, NZ Catholic Bishops Conference. 


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