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This level of opposition is not unprecedented. Back in 2016/2017, the Health Committee investigated New Zealanders’ views on the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide, in general. Of the over 21,000 submissions they received, 78% opposed legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Such high levels of opposition contrast with the results of public polls. In 2018, 71% of Kiwis told a Newshub Reid Research poll that they supported a law “that would allow terminally ill patients to choose to die, with the help and support of their doctor.” Similarly, in 2017, 75% of New Zealanders polled by Horizon Poll said that they supported “a law change to allow medical practitioners to assist people to die, where a request has come from a mentally competent patient, 18 years or over, who has end stage terminal disease and irreversible unbearable suffering, e.g. cancer.”
Why the discrepancy between submissions and polling? There are several reasons.
Polls on euthanasia usually include euphemisms and key phrases that are not defined, such as ‘choose to die’, ‘assist to die’ or ‘assisted dying’. A 2017 Curia Market Research poll found that most respondents confused ‘assisted dying’ with end-of-life practices that are already legal. Therefore support for a concept such as ‘assisted dying’ does not necessarily mean support for the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Polling takes a sampling of a population, whereas submissions are generally only written by people who care deeply about an issue. (Parliament usually receives only a hundred or so submissions on a proposed law.) Most people will have opinions on a range of issues, but only really care and have thought deeply about a handful or so. Polling captures everyone, whereas submissions capture those who take a deep interest in an issue.
In a submission, a person explains what they think about a specific piece of legislation (usually by including arguments, personal stories and evidence), put their name publicly to those thoughts, and take the time to send them to Parliament. Polls, on the other hand, are anonymous, and they only require a person to give a simple answer to a pre-set question without giving it much thought.
That simple answer may contain the most important difference between polling and submissions. Making and considering laws about complex topics like euthanasia and assisted suicide is a complicated task. Polls ask people to make a snap judgment about what is actually a multifaceted, nuanced issue. By their very nature, polls can’t get into the complexity of what it means to license doctors to end the lives of some of their patients. Submissions, however, give people the space to consider the merits of a particular law, with its particular details and implications, its benefits and risks.
When committed, interested New Zealanders are given the space to consider the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide – and in particular the End of Life Choice Bill – they very clearly and overwhelmingly say “no”.
Sources: Care Alliance, Analysis of submissions to the Justice Committee on the End of Life Choice Bill (2019); E Hurley & L Burr, “Newshub poll: Most New Zealanders support euthanasia,” Newshub (3 February 2018); Horizon Poll, “75% support medical assistance to die,” Horizon Poll News (18 June 2017); Euthanasia-Free NZ, “Widespread confusion about ‘assisted dying’”, Scoop (13 December 2017).