Matt Vickers: Beware the tactics of fear in End of Life Choice referendum

This piece was originally published by the New Zealand Herald on Friday 4 September 2020. Click here to view.


Last year, after more than two years of scrutiny, the End of Life Choice Act was passed into law.

By third reading, our elected lawmakers were confident the final wording was safe, humane, and well-drafted. With National’s recent leadership changes, all of our party leaders from the last Parliament now support this Act.

As a result, New Zealanders should feel very confident voting Yes at the referendum.

And yet, it has been frustrating to see attempts to chip away at that confidence through fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Australian journalist Andrew Denton wrote about attending an international conference hosted by HOPE, an anti-assisted dying organisation. He listened to former legislator Nancy Elliott spell out the tactics that had worked for her in the United States.

“When you have lots of arguments,” she said, “if one argument gets blown out of the water, you still have more, and each argument will reach somebody else.” Nancy enthused: “Right now the disability argument is really kicking it. It’s very powerful. Will it always be powerful? We don’t know. Two, three, four years from now that may have holes kicked in it, just for different reasons, so we have to be flexible.”

Nancy also cited elder abuse and suicide contagion as other possible arguments, and went on to say: “You only have to convince legislators that they don’t want this bill. You don’t have to win their hearts and minds; all you have to do is get them to say, ‘Not this bill’, and then you have got your win.”

Opponents of the End of Life Choice Bill tried to use these tactics on our politicians in New Zealand. They claimed the Bill would be a slippery slope, invite elder abuse and devalue the lives of the disabled. But our politicians looked past these speculations to the evidence – 20 years of history in some countries – and to the wording of the bill.

MPs were satisfied that the evidence, reasserted in Seales v Attorney General, showed:

The majority who access these laws overseas are dying of cancer, and are in the last weeks, or even days of their lives; the groups most in need of protection from abuse
under these laws – the elderly and the disabled – have faced no increased risk under them overseas; and these laws have not adversely affected the relationship between patients and doctors but in fact, the opposite; there is a powerful palliative effect in simply giving people the means of ending the horror. Some sense of control. Even if they choose not to use it.

None of these facts have changed. But now, we’re seeing opponents attempt to use fear, uncertainty and doubt on the New Zealand public in the lead up to the referendum.

Whether it’s the self-published “journalist”, who claims to be objective but structured a book primarily made up of opponents to Lecretia’s court case in order to advance her arguments, who claimed to interview Lecretia’s mother, but never did, and has appeared to have duped naive journalists that she provides an objective voice.

Whether it’s Votesafe, and their quizzes or billboards, who cherry-pick details of the bill and present them in the worst possible light, absent of context and clarifying detail, in order to scare voters.

Or whether it’s the often-church-backed doctors and lawyers who falsely claim to speak for all in their profession, but use their platform to advance an agenda to deny their patient’s rights to make informed decisions for themselves.

In order to remain informed, voters need to seek unbiased information, and they deserve to know the loyalties and agenda of the people who are seeking to provide information on either side of the debate.

We provide information to the public through our Yes for Compassion campaign, but we’re not shy about our agenda or who we are. We’re a group of ordinary New Zealanders who have lost family and friends to terminal illness, or who are terminally ill ourselves, who can see how this law would be a comfort. We want New Zealanders to vote Yes.

But you don’t have to take it from us. For neutral information, voters should go straight to the government’s website which provides information on the referendum, the legislation, and how it will work.

If anyone took the time to compare Yes for Compassion’s campaign with the information on the government’s referendum website, they’d find it’s basically the same information. There’s a reason for that. We don’t need to deviate from the truth.

The bill provides a way for terminally ill people, in the last days of their lives, to foreshorten their suffering should they need it, and should they choose to. That’s all it does. I hope you never find yourself in that situation. But if you do, I hope you have the choices that my wife was denied.

Please vote Yes in October.