No matter what we call it, we must tell it like it is

It is essential to tell the truth about choice at the end of life, writes Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman.

When I meet new people and tell them I’m an ethicist, they sometimes roll their eyes and take a step back. They assume  being an ethicist means being a moralising know-it-all who tells everyone else how to behave. If I then tell them I am a Christian ethicist, they oftentimes drop their jaws and take off across the room. They assume being a Christian ethicist means being a self-righteous moralising know-it-all who tells everyone else how to behave, and tells anyone who doesn’t agree that they are going to hell.

In truth, there are a fair few ethicists who are moralising know-it-alls.

In fairness, there are heaps of Christians who are self-righteous.

For anyone who stays and continues the conversation, I respond to their suspicions like this. As I see it, an ethicist doesn’t so much tell everyone else how to behave as attempt to help them understand how they do, and should, behave. My task is, first and foremost, descriptive. It is only secondarily, and derivatively, evaluative. My aim is not to assert, once and for all, what is the right thing to do. It is rather to assure that, whatever was done, is being done, or might be done, we describe it accurately and evaluate it honestly.

In this, an ethicist is something like a referee. A referee doesn’t play the game. They support the players by minding the boundaries of the field and the rules of the game. To be sure, a referee can interfere with the game by being too lax or too strict with the whistle. Any serious sporting fan can recall games that have been ruined by over-zealous or under-serious refereeing.

An ethicist is also something like a judge. Lawyers present evidence and elicit testimony. Judges moderate the proceeding and keep it in good order. They rule what is or is not admissible. They prevent false testimony. They monitor examination of witnesses. And they explain the burden of proof governing the proceedings. The verdict itself, however, belongs to the jury. At their best, judges ensure a full and fair hearing of the evidence. They guarantee a reasonable and responsible trial.

A Christian ethicist simply does all this with a range of biblical and theological commitments in mind. These commitments are not, and cannot be, held by all Christians, let alone all citizens. Sticking with the legal metaphor, a Christian ethicist moderates a specialised courtroom in which the standards of evidence and burdens of proof are, in some respects, different from others. Even so, they are not, and cannot be, different in every respect. Just as there is broad overlap between a criminal prosecution and a civil action of the same case, there is broad overlap between Christian ethical reflection and other forms of ethical reflection. The differences are real. But they do not go all the way down.

I say all of this in order to say two things about David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill.

The first is this. Before examining comparable laws or policies in other countries and their effects,  before analysing public opinion in this country, we need to get our facts straight and set our words in order. If we want to understand what we should do about it, if we hope to know what we think about it, we first need to see what it is. "It" is described variously as "euthanasia", "mercy-killing", and "physician-assisted-suicide". Mr Seymour’s Bill prefers the description "assisted dying". This suggests allowing or abetting, rather than acting. It subtly shades towards what is called "passive euthanasia" — pulling the plug. It deftly dodges what is called "active euthanasia" — pushing the drug. In other words, it disguises what we would be doing if the Bill is passed.

The second follows from the first. If the Bill moves from first reading to select committee and public submissions, the 70% approval reported in the 2014-15 Annual Values Survey must be revisited. The AVS asked: "Suppose a person has a painful incurable disease. Do you think that doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life if the patient requests it?" Asking about allowing a doctor to "end a patient’s life" is rather different from asking about allowing the doctor to "kill the patient", or allowing the patient to "kill themselves". Like the Bill, the survey dissembles.

In an interview with RadioLIVE, Mr Seymour remarked that the issue must be decided "on the facts rather than fear-mongering". He’s right. But "the facts" include honest description, deliberation, and decision about what voluntary euthanasia really is. Regardless of our religious or political persuasion, before we reckon with whether or not to pull the plug or push the drug we need to recognise that, if we do, we are killing a human being. Before we can tell whether it is right or wrong, we must tell the truth about what it is. It is homicide or suicide, which Part 4: Section 25 of the Bill flatly denies.

- Dr Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman is a lecturer in theology and public issues at the University of Otago. 


my mother was sick. but she still wanted to live. In care she become ill .they did not get onto it. soon enough She passed away .They wrote me a letter saying sorry. my point is. we must be carful of laws regards life and death

It seems that euthanasia is being promoted rather pragmatically. I mean this harshly. It is disingenuous to speak of "assisted dying", when "killing on request" is a more accurate description of what the bill seeks to legalise.

I think we know this is not pedantry on my part, but rather spin on the part of David Seymour. Spin designed to dupe, since it is known that many voters don't read beyond the slogans.

I can stomach ideas that I think are wrong, but I'm struggling with the dishonesty that attends a lot of modern crusades, including this one.