Playing the question, not the ball

It’s no secret that I am a supporter of end of life choice/voluntary euthanasia/aid in dying/medically assisted suicide. Rather than once again revisit the grounds for why that is, you can read this post if interested.

However, I also recognise there are those who have good faith objections to changing our law and introducing this practice into our society. Members of my own family likely would vote against doing so in any referendum on the issue. I think they would be wrong to do so, but reasonable and well-meaning people can and do disagree on such matters.

Then there are those whose objection to the possibility of law change allowing the practice tips over into the frankly silly. That is to say, their moral view on the issue (which may well be sincerely and strongly held) tips them over into “anything goes” territory. So, rather than treating the matter as one on which reasonable and well-meaning people can and do disagree, they view their position as so self-evidently correct that it justifies doing anything necessary to ensure it wins out.

The poster child (and, honestly, “child” is appropriate) for that approach to the issue is Maggie Barry. Hot off having to apologise to Labour MP Ruth Dyson after yelling at her for the way she chaired parliamentary consideration of the End of Life Choice Bill, Barry now is attacking the proposed referendum question that may be put to the public about that legislation.

Now, it’s not even certain whether there’ll even be such a referendum. That will only happen if MPs agree to insert the requirement for one into the End of Life Choice Bill (and then vote to pass that Bill into law). Whether there are the votes to do so in the House is not yet clear.

But if MPs doinclude such a referendum in the Bill, then it would hand the decision on whether that law comes into force to the voting public. Just as the switch to MMP under the Electoral Act 1993 was made conditional on the public positively approving the step, so too the End of Life Choice Act (as it would be once Parliament passes it) would only become law if a majority of voters agree to its doing so.

As such, the simple and obvious question to ask the public is the one proposed for inclusion in the Bill: "Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2017 coming into force?" Because that is exactly what the public vote will decide; if a majority say “yes”, then it does … but if a majority say “no”, then it doesn’t.

What possible problem could Maggie Barry then have with such a question? Well, according to her, the question is “misleading and too narrow” because it is “over-reliant on the name of the Bill”. 

She reportedly would rather the question read something along the lines of "Do you support euthanasia and assisted suicide for people who want it in New Zealand?" Putting aside the small matter of the terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” being just as emotively charged as is the Bill’s title, Barry’s alternative is simply unacceptable.

First of all, her proposed question doesn’t accurately describe what the End of Life Choice Bill (as significantly amended in recent parliamentary proceedings) would do. It’s not those people who “want” euthanasia or assisted suicide who will be able to access it under the legislation. It’s people who want it and qualify to receive it.

Leaving out the fact that such people must be over 18, have been diagnosed with a terminal medical condition that will kill them in six months or less, and be experiencing unbearable suffering is far, far more “misleading” than is the proposed question. Indeed, there’s simply no way any responsible Parliament seeking to genuinely ascertain the collective view of the people could allow it to go forwards.

Second, if Barry thinks that the title to the Bill – the End of Life Choice Bill – is so misleading, then she could have seek to get it changed by her fellow MPs. Oh, but wait … this already has been proposed. Barry’s fellow opponent to the legislation, Chris Penk has drafted a “Supplementary Order Paper” (number 207) that will replace the legislation’s title with the "Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Act 2019."

If a majority of MPs think that this better reflects the content and effect of the legislation, then they can agree to his proposal and then change the question asked of the NZ public to: “"Do you support the Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Act 2019 coming into force?" But if MPs don’t think this is an appropriate reflection of the content and effect of the legislation … well, reasonable and well-meaning people can disagree, can’t they?