Would a referendum on euthanasia pass in New Zealand?

A New Zealand First MP along with his populist leader have proposed that the morally tricky question of euthanasia be addressed in New Zealand by a referendum rather than by a vote on a private member’s bill in Parliament.

Although about 80% of the public support euthanasia when asked about it in principle, when the 120 members in New Zealand Parliament elected by proportional representation are asked to vote on it in practice with procedures for safeguards, be last time this was tried in 2003 the Bill failed by three votes. The reason why it failed to pass was a substantial number of MPs who voted against the bill was reservations about abuse.

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 he wrote that suicide was also a spiritual offence:

…in evading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for

If a referendum was to fail, that would make our morally timid MPs even more timid about ever passing a bill on euthanasia.

There is a considerable risk that a referendum on euthanasia will fail because people don’t know exactly what they are voting for. Because of that they will listen to those  who opposed euthanasia who will point to the risk of abuse. A referendum strengthens the hands of those that oppose euthanasia. They can play to the lack of detail on what exactly is to be approved.

Many people have very 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  are 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 Referendum does not offer that indispensable option. Writing on a Bill on end of life choice is legally and morally tricky.

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 by many  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.

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