The upcoming referendum on the End of Life Choice Act 2019 is by far the most important decision we as a nation will make in the October elections. Much has been written and much stated before the select committee – more than 90 per cent of submissions in opposition to the Bill. I am one of those opponents.
The most recent contribution to this very complex issue is an opinion piece by Matt Vickers (former husband of Lucretia Seales). Not surprisingly he supports the Bill. I can understand his stance but sadly it is expressed in terms that are both simplistic and false.
It is grossly false to suggest that only supporters of the Bill are compassionate and those against are not. It is false to imply that it is only supporters of the Bill who are truthful. Indeed, in his opening sentence he states that "the End of Life Choice Act was passed into law". That is not true. It has yet to receive Royal Assent and that remains dependent on the referendum.
Like all issues in public discourse, assisted dying is complex. There are reasons for and reasons against. Inevitably there is a distribution of opinion – let's call it a bell-shaped curve, a so-called normal distribution. So, the first point is that viewpoints on either side are valid in principle and we are duty bound on either side to respect that. But I have been to many public meetings on this issue where attacks on opponents to the Bill have been vociferous and venomous.
It needs to be recognised that a significant part of the attack on opponents has been an odd confusion between the issue at hand and religion. And the hatred of religion in some quarters has always spilled over in these meetings. Vickers comes very close to holding hands with these anti-religionists in his sweeping generalisations about "church-backed doctors and lawyers".
To state my position clearly, I happen to be a scientist and a Christian but I doubt any considered person would refer to me as a "church-backed scientist". For one thing, which church? Churches, too, have a distribution of opinion.
I will float a very non-scientific guess here (but its worth undertaking a proper survey). I am thinking that more opponents to the Bill have sat through the long hours and days with a dying friend, relative or stranger than proponents. Sat there holding a hand, talking quietly and lovingly often to an unresponsive patient, perhaps singing soothingly; human contact which might seem one-way only, but inevitably is mutual; savouring the sacred moments as life fades. Who knows? But I say this with passion: "opponents of this Bill are deeply compassionate" and to claim otherwise is the grossest of falsehoods.
I want to see this Bill spark a fire of compassion in our nation. Let us engage more with the dying. Let us create true personal dignity for the dying – not by abandoning them, not by killing them prematurely – but by simply journeying with them day after day until the end; sustaining their mana.
In this most crucial Act of Parliament, our politicians have sadly ignored the roughly 95 percent of submissions against. They have ignored the Maori view; they have ignored the Pacifica view; they have ignored the Islamic view. We already have death with dignity.
Without minimising her anguish and the loss to her loved ones, Lucretia Seales is in fact the index person for death with dignity under the current law. No one need suffer pain in their dying. If there are a few exceptions, then let's solve those particular problems.
Death in a hospice and death in a hospital are worlds apart. For goodness sake politicians, invest money and resources in hospices. Hospices should not have to sell second-hand stuff to fund themselves. And if in a very few cases medication is inadequate to control pain then let's invest more in researching new medications.
Assisted dying is in fact possible under the present law and frequently occurs by removing life-support. But to change the law to license medical professionals to kill is a fundamental ground shift in the profession, a radical change in medical ethos that is both unnecessary and deplorable.
People of New Zealand, do not place this burden on our doctors. Instead get out there and do the mahi – the hard slog of being human and extending love and human encounter to our most vulnerable in their last days.
Compassion is not delivered by proxy of legislation. Compassion is personal. Compassion is up to you and me.
• Dr Jeff Tallon is a physicist. The views expressed here are personal and not to be associated in any way with his employer.