Assisted suicide has had popular support for many decades. The two previous attempts at passing a Death with Dignity Bill failed despite widespread public support:
- In 1995, Michael Laws introduced a Death with Dignity Bill. It failed by 61 votes against and 29 for the Bill. His Bill could only become law after a binding nationwide referendum to be held at the 1996 General Election.
- Peter Brown, a list MP for New Zealand First, introduced a Death with Dignity Bill in 2003 that was defeated by 59 votes to 58 votes.
The reason political parties do not act is those who are against assisted suicide are passionately against it and will change their vote because of such a bill. Those who are for assisted suicide are unlikely to change their vote if a bill is not passed by Parliament.
Parliament will be divided into thirds
Any bill that does go for on assisted dying will divide Parliament in much the way it divides the community which is into three equally sized groups.
- One-third will be against assisted dying on moral or religious principle.
- One-third will be for it.
- One-third will be for it will be but will be riddled with doubts about the ability to draft a bill that safeguards against abuse and misadventure.
Those doubts are legitimate and entitled to be satisfied before an MP votes for the bill.
Many who support euthanasia in principle have serious reservations about the ability to craft a Bill that prevents abuses. Parliaments have an interest in protecting vulnerable groups–including the poor, the elderly, and disabled persons–from abuse, neglect, and mistakes.
The sanctity of life is the first rule of law
Many people have strong views on exactly when and when not euthanasia is permissible because of their views about the sanctity of life and the risk of abuse. The recent High Court judgement on an unsuccessful application for an exception to the criminal law on assisted suicide said that:
The sanctity of human life principle underpins the criminal law relating to culpable homicide. It was said by Blackstone to be the first rule of English law.
When making an exception to the first rule of law, people want to know exactly what they are voting for and exactly what safeguards apply the proposed exceptions. A badly drafted bill may offer insufficient assurances to some MPs about preventing abuse and ensuring people who are depressed are not offered options that are not in their best interests.
Others have moral or religious objections. The religious objections were summarised by Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, where suicide was also a spiritual offence:
…in evading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for
The importance of getting the details right
Many Bills have failed such as recently in the Scottish Parliament and in 2003 in the New Zealand Parliament because they were badly drafted and were considered to offer insufficient protection of the vulnerable against abuse and melancholy.
Even when courts rule favourably on the matter, such as in Canada with its recent Supreme Court decision under its Bill of Rights, that court suspended its judgement upholding the right to euthanasia for 12 month so that the Canadian Parliament could work out the ever so vital details by passing a Bill. As the Supreme Court of United Kingdom recently ruled:
… unless the court can be satisfied that any exception to the subsection can be operated in such a way as to generate an acceptably small risk that assistance will be afforded to those vulnerable to pressure to seek to commit suicide, it cannot conclude that the absolute prohibition in the subsection is disproportionate to its legitimate aim.
That is the essence of reservations about end of life choice. Blackstone’s ratio applies to standards of proof in criminal proceedings: it is better that 10 guilty go free than one innocent suffer.
Those with reservations about end of life choice have the same concerns that motivated Blackstone’s ratio. Their reservations are focused on few cases of abuse not justifying the benefits of going gently into that good night by making exceptions from an absolute prohibition under the criminal law against assisted suicide for the terminally ill despite they being of sound mind and independent judgement.
The law has long acted to prevent, by force if necessary, suicide – including suicide by refusing to take appropriate measures necessary to preserve one’s life after the point at which life become unbearable. Whether the patient’s wishes to be honoured in this area is left to elected representatives to legislate. Justice Scalia asks
Are there, then, no reasonable and humane limits that ought not to be exceeded in requiring an individual to preserve his own life? There obviously are, but they are not set forth in the Due Process Clause.
What assures us that those limits will not be exceeded is the same constitutional guarantee that is the source of most of our protection – what protects us, for example, from being assessed a tax of 100% of our income above the subsistence level, from being forbidden to drive cars, or from being required to send our children to school for 10 hours a day, none of which horribles is categorically prohibited by the Constitution.
Our salvation is the Equal Protection Clause, which requires the democratic majority to accept for themselves and their loved ones what they impose on you and me.
It is a decision for Parliament
The biggest threat to an End of Life Choice bill passing the New Zealand Parliament was judicial intervention in this charged social issue that will only mobilises the opponents of the right the applicants to the court seek. Scalia again this time on the risks of the courts moving in advance of the popular will, and thereby poisoning the democratic process:
Leaving this matter to the political process is not only legally correct, it is pragmatically so. That alone… can produce compromises satisfying a sufficient mass of the electorate that this deeply felt issue will cease distorting the remainder of our democratic process.
As an example of the importance of democratic compromises in securing the votes in Parliament, there is a voluntary euthanasia bill currently before the Scottish Parliament. It has been stuck in committee for two years because it not only promises end of life choice, it also grants a right of euthanasia to those with progressive degenerative diseases.
By overreaching to progressive degenerative diseases, the Bill in the Scottish Parliament was bogged down because euthanasia as distinct from a death with dignity is a step too far from many members of Parliament willing to support end of life choice for the terminally ill such as provided for in the House of Lords Private Member’s Bill on end of life choice which later failed in the Commons.
Parliament can make finely judged compromises
Any private member’s bill that does pass the New Zealand Parliament on end of life choice will be riddled with compromises and will have a genuine concern to prevent abuse and guard against questionable decisions made when judgements of the terminally ill is clouded in some way. No court in a single judgement can provide all those details and compromises.
The great strength of democracy is a small group of concerned and thoughtful citizens can band together and change things by mounting single issue campaigns or joining a political party and running for office and winning elections or influencing who wins.
Indeed, it is that very strength of democracy – small groups of concerned citizens banding together – is what is holding up legislating on an end of life choice. It is not that minorities are powerless and individuals are voiceless. Exactly the opposite.
Many people have passionate opinions for and against an End of Life Choice Bill. These opinions are taken into account by members of Parliament in fine detail depending on how voters will vote at the next election. What can be undemocratic about members of Parliament paying attention to how a wide range of ordinary members of the community might vote if they disappoint them.
The key safeguard of minorities against the majority is their ability to block vote. Yes, those in the majority will be annoyed at the power of the minority to slow down the passage of a End of Life Choices Bill. Yet on some other matter passionate to them those currently in the majority will one day or another end up in a minority. The rotation of power is common in democracies, and the worst rise to the top.
It is wise to design constitutional safeguards to minimise the damage done when those crazies to the right or left of you get their chance in office, as they will sooner or later rather than focus on the powers you and those that currently agree with you should have in your few days in which you fleetingly have a majority. Too many policies and ideas of the one political party or another assume that they are the face of the future, rather than just another political party that will hold power as often as not and always for an uncertain time.
New Zealand Parliamentary elections are always close because of proportional representation. This makes reality of ending up in the minority again very quickly in a few years very real.
Yesterday’s majority of the vote sooner or later and often sooner than they expect will break off into different minorities on the next big issue of the day.
These newly formed minorities will use that same ability to band together as a minority to block vote to protect what they think is important and advance agendas they think are to be wider benefit despite the opinion of the current majority to the contrary. All reforms start as a minority viewpoint.
You can’t complain about democracy not working because it’s working precisely as it should: parliamentarians paying close attention to how a great number of people from all walks of life vote in light of how they as members of Parliament voted on specific issues important to them.
Do not underrate the terrors of death
The democratic process must strike a proper balance between the interests of terminally ill, mentally competent individuals who would seek to end their suffering and the State’s interests in protecting those who might seek to end life mistakenly or under pressure. The pros and cons of euthanasia as a practical matter is ably summarised by Richard Posner:
Countries and states that authorize physician-assisted suicide impose strict requirements that minimize the danger of involuntary euthanasia—too strict, some believe (such as the requirement in Dutch law that the patient’s suffering be “unbearable” before he can invoke physician assistance to end his life).
These requirements (which further reduce the stigma of physician-assisted suicide by confining the practice to cases of genuine desperation) are not airtight, or uniformly observed.
Any system will be abused. The question is whether the incidence of abuses, combined with the other costs of the system, outweigh the benefits.
Gary Becker has written frequently on the issue of euthanasia and suicide. Indeed, he wrote the Economic Theory of Suicide, not long after his wife took her own life in the early 1970s. He argues well about people’s ability to weigh the considerations:
Rational forward–looking persons with good information about their future circumstances would commit suicide only when convinced that they would be worse off by continuing to live.
David Hume said (in his Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul) “That suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves no one can question, who allows that age, sickness, or misfortune may render life a burden, and make it worse than annihilation.”
Schopenhauer was also confident about the rationality of suicide, “It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life” (Parerga and Paralipomena).
Becker also wrote insightfully of the terrors of death:
Hume adds “I believe no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death”, and Schopenhauer makes the same observation “But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance…”
The reason why Death with Dignity Bills fail in Parliament is those in the community who are against it are passionately against that it and will change their vote if it passed. Those that are for it are not swinging or single issue voters.
Let the people decide through parliament
The way in which a bill on assisted dying is to be passed is by normal democratic means: by trying to persuade each other and elections. As United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said
The virtue of a democratic system [with a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech] is that it readily enables the people, over time, to be persuaded that what they took for granted is not so and to change their laws accordingly.
Yes, assisted dying years a passionate issue and some people are impatient and wanted to use the courts, but again I believe Justice Scalia is right when he said:
We might have let the People decide. But that the majority will not do. Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better. I dissent.
That importance of a fair defeat at the ballot box and in Parliament is important both to when and if a bill on end of life choice is passed, and to how quickly support opposition to that bill will be mobilised before such a bill even is put into the Parliamentary ballot of private member’s bills.
Nothing stirs up the impassioned (and most other people as well) more than depriving them of their right to support or oppose what is important to them through political campaigns and at an election. The losing side, we all end up on the losing side at one time or another, are much more likely to accept an outcome if they had their say and simply lost the vote at the election or in Parliament.
We live in a representative democracy
The advocates of a referendum want to remake democracy with the faculty workshop as their model. Such deliberation has demanding requirements for popular participation in the democratic process, including a high level of knowledge and analytical sophistication and an absence, or at least severe curtailment, of self-interested motive.
Representative democracy is a division of labour in the face of information overload. John Stuart Mill had sympathy for parliaments as best suited to be places of public debate on the various opinions held by the population and as a watchdog of the professionals who create and administer laws and policy:
Their part is to indicate wants, to be an organ for popular demands, and a place of adverse discussion for all opinions relating to public matters, both great and small; and, along with this, to check by criticism, and eventually by withdrawing their support, those high public officers who really conduct the public business, or who appoint those by whom it is conducted.
Representative democracy has the advantage of allowing the community to rely in its decision-making on the contributions of individuals with special qualifications of intelligence or character. Representative democracy makes a more effective use of resources within the citizenry to advance the common good.
Members of parliament are trustees who follow their own understanding of the best action to pursue in another view. As Edmund Burke wrote:
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.
You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. … Our representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Modern democracy is government subject to electoral checks. Citizens do have sufficient knowledge and sophistication to vote out leaders who are performing poorly or contrary to their wishes. Modern democracy is the power to replace governments at periodic elections.
Richard Posner argued that a representative democracy enables the adult population, at very little cost in time, money or distraction from private pursuits commercial or otherwise:
to punish at least the flagrant mistakes and misfeasance of officialdom,
to assure an orderly succession of at least minimally competent officials,
to generate feedback to the officials concerning the consequences of their policies,
to prevent officials from (or punish them for) entirely ignoring the interests of the governed, and
to prevent serious misalignments between government action and public opinion.
The power of the electorate to turn elected officials out of office at the next election gives elected officials an incentive to adopt policies that do not outrage public opinion and administer the policies with some minimum honesty and competence.
A referendum is too blunt an instrument for a matter requiring finely judged compromises
A referendum is an all or nothing choice that does not allow an iterative process where people can converge on better and better drafts of the proposed law. Only Parliament can do that.
Bills have 3 readings on the floor of the house and a select committee process for a reason. There is plenty of time for the parliament to deliberate consider options and alternatives and change its mind in light of further revisions to a bill. None of those possibilities for reflection and reconsideration are available in a referendum. That is why we live in a representative democracy.
We choose people and parties who we see to be of sound judgement and leave the details to them. If they keep getting it wrong, those members of parliament will pay at the ballot box.