At this year's election every voter will have the chance to decide whether or not the End of Life Choice Act should become law. We understand that the End of Life Choice Act is an attempt to address pain and fear at the end of life. As church leaders we have sat at bedsides and kitchen tables with families, loved ones, and people who are dying as they navigate this incredibly difficult time.
It is a season of life that is not unfamiliar to us, and so we recognise the significance of New Zealand's decision in the coming weeks. In particular, we're concerned for the well-being of our society if this referendum passes, and so want to explain our opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide.
The church has a history of caring for the most vulnerable people in our communities. Many early hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other care-based movements were established by Christians as they tried to love and care for vulnerable individuals – the sick, the young, the poor, and the dying. This history of care comes from our ongoing belief that every person has immense value, and our desire to ensure that we uphold each person's worth regardless of their circumstances – rich, poor, sick, healthy, lonely, or surrounded by friends and family.
We also recognise that life is full of vulnerable moments. People regularly get sick. They experience sadness, are confronted with failure, challenged by weakness, and encounter death. Vulnerability will look different from person to person. However, communities have an active role in providing care for us when we need it most. It is core to our purpose as the Church to always strive to be this kind of community of love and support.
Our experience of supporting people in vulnerable and painful circumstances led us to two key reasons for our opposition to the End of Life Choice Act. First, we oppose the impact it will have on those New Zealanders who are especially vulnerable, and secondly, we are concerned by the impact the Act will have on our ability to care well for people at the end of life.
The End of Life Choice Act increases risk to vulnerable communities. The Act states that people who have "a terminal illness that is likely to end the person's life within 6 months," are "in an advanced state of irreversible decline in physical capability," "experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person considers tolerable," and are "competent to make an informed decision about assisted dying," would be eligible for euthanasia or assisted suicide.
In doing so, however, the law states that it is permissible for medical professionals to assist in the suicides of those people whose lives fit within these criteria – even as we work to prevent the suicide of others. Voting in favour of the End of Life Choice Act then, not only introduces a significant change to the way that we as a society view and value life and death, it creates a new reality for everyone whose life fits within those criteria, where the previously unthinkable option of assisted suicide now becomes an apparently reasonable response to their illness.
Rather than caring well for New Zealanders at the end of life, this Act introduces significant risk to vulnerable people – the very people that we would otherwise work to protect. In particular, these already vulnerable communities are especially susceptible to pressure to choose euthanasia or assisted suicide when they otherwise would not.
We need to remember that people's families and lives can be messy. Elder abuse is a recognised problem in New Zealand. Age Concern has found that family members make up more than 75 per cent of the alleged abusers of older people who report their abuse. Too many elderly New Zealanders face situations where those people who are supposed to be supporting them make them feel like an inconvenience or financial burden. Here in New Zealand there are already massive shortfalls in people being able to access the healthcare they need. It is essential that as a country we work together to fix these gaps in the healthcare system before we offer legal assisted suicide.
While the Act states that a doctor must "do their best to ensure that the person expresses their wish [for euthanasia or assisted suicide] free from pressure from any other person" this fails to acknowledge how difficult it can be to detect pressure – especially if that pressure is subtle or indirect. In Oregon, for example, where assisted dying legislation has now been in place for over 20 years, the official annual reports show that increasing numbers of people being assisted to die name being a burden on family, friends, and caregivers as a reason for doing so, with 59 per cent of people who sought assisted suicide in 2019 naming this reason in 2019.
Our second key concern with the End of Life Choice Act is its impact on the care we provide for New Zealanders at the end of life.
To be very clear, our position is not one of maintaining life at all costs. Having sat with many people at the end of their life, we recognise that this can be an incredibly difficult time. Sometimes the right decision is to stop treatment and ensure sufficient pain relief is available. However, this is all possible and legal within the framework of our current medical care.
New Zealand is ranked third in the world for our palliative care and hospice services. While it's wonderful that we have such high-quality end of life care available, the debate about the need for euthanasia and assisted suicide over the past five years has highlighted that there is still plenty of room for improvement. In particular, it is essential that the availability of hospice care is increased, and that care for people's spiritual and mental health is better incorporated.
When Scotland considered introducing assisted dying legislation in 2015 they recognised the dangers that the legislation would pose and instead investigated their palliative care services and found ways to improve that. They decided that improving palliative care would be a better response to the fear and pain people worried about at the end of life.
Gaps in end-of-life care are unjust. However, as doctors who daily interact with people at the end of life have suggested, if we truly want to care well for New Zealanders at the end of life, improving our hospice services and attending to the gaps will be much more effective than introducing legislation that creates risks, new questions, and tensions for every person that fits its criteria.
That's why we ask New Zealand to reject the End of Life Choice Act in the upcoming referendum, and instead call for the appreciation and improvement of hospice and palliative care in New Zealand.
• Rev. Paul Allen-Baines, Congregational Union of NZ
• Pastor Paul de Jong, Senior Pastor, LIFE
• Pastors Jonathan and Robyn Dove, Senior Pastors, Greenlane Christian Centre
• Ven Dr Lyndon Drake, Anglican Archdeacon of Tāmaki Makaurau
• Most Rev. Patrick Dunn, Catholic Bishop of Auckland
• Majors Ian & Liz Gainsford, Divisional Leaders, The Salvation Army
• Most Rev Michael Gielen, Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Auckland
• Rev. Jonny Grant, Vicar, St Paul's Church
• Rev. Brett Jones, Interim National Superintendent, Wesleyan Methodist Church
• Pastor Sanjai Kandregula, Executive member, Assemblies of God NZ
• Pastor Brian Kelly, Senior Pastor, Calvary Chapel
• Rev. Dr Stuart Lange, National Director, NZ Christian Network
• Rev. Kok Soon Lee, Auckland Chinese Churches Association
• Pastor David MacGregor, National Director, Vineyard Churches
• Rev. Andrew Marshall, National Director, Alliance Churches of New Zealand
• Rev. Steve Millward, Moderator, Northern Presbytery, Presbyterian Church
• Pastor Peter Mortlock, Senior Pastor, City Impact Church
• Rt. Rev. Te Kitohi Pikaahu, Anglican Bishop of Te Tai Tokerau
• Pastor Lui Ponifasio, on behalf of the Christian Community Churches of NZ
• Pastor Boyd Ratnaraja, National Leader, Elim Churches
• Pastors Dean Rush, Senior Leaders, C3 Church Auckland
• Pastor Jim Shaw, New Life Churches Executive team
• Bishop Brian Tamaki, Senior Minister of Destiny Churches International
• Pastor Allan Taylor, Northern Baptist Association
• Pastor Ben Timothy, President, North New Zealand Conference, Seventh-day Adventist Church