False compassion

On October 17, New Zealanders once more take part in a general election. As has happened before in many previous general elections, many a political pundit will say that this is the most important election for a generation, or indeed in this country’s history. 

This time they may be right, and not simply because New Zealand – and the world – is in the middle of a pandemic. 

In this election, voters will get to have their say in two referenda, one on cannabis law reform and one on whether the End of Life Choice Act should come into force.  

Both are serious subjects – the one about euthanasia and assisted-suicide especially so. With the understandable preoccupation with Covid-19 and the like, it is hard for voters to give these subjects the attention they deserve. 

The End of Life Choice Act is getting some coverage in mainstream media. There are also campaigns on social media, which can be very subtle. 

In a recent opinion piece on Stuff about conspiracy theories, Kathy Errington wrote that the nature of Facebook encourages populism as a strategy. The best way for a campaign to reach out to a wide group of people, with many different interests, is to base your campaign around some sort of feeling, “which is vague enough that people can project pretty much whatever they want onto it”. 

This seems to be happening with a current campaign called “Yes for Compassion”, which has the subtitle: “Choice at the End of Life”.  

On the campaign’s website, it is clear to see that “compassion” is closely linked to “have the choice”, “stay in control” and “make decisions . . . knowing what is right for us”. 

Who is the “us” referred to here? As Danielle van Dalen wrote in a Maxim Institute piece, it is “those people who are competent, confident, and clear in their choice”. 

But, she wrote, what opens up is a fearful new paradigm of choice” for an entirely different group – for those people who are considered vulnerable and are negotiating the mess of life”. These are not necessarily so competent, confident and clear. Would the EndofLife Choice Act protect them in all cases? Many think the Act’s so-called “safeguards” would not. 

The second “feeling” the Yes-vote campaigners are trying to arouse concerns compassion.  

Three years ago, NZ Catholic asked Robert Preston from the UK group Living and Dying Well, about the argument some put forward that, if it is OK to ask a vet to end the life of an animal that is suffering, should not we be allowed to do the same for people who want it? 

Mr Preston’s answer was telling – any vet will say that most people who bring their pets to be put down do so out of compassion. But there are others who do so because the animal is a nuisance, or costs too much, or the family is going on holiday. 

The trouble with the case for assisted dying is that the people who make it tend to be the people who would not do anything like this, they would behave perfectly properly. But there is a failure to realise that there are people in society who do this. Most families are loving and caring. Some aren’t. You have criminal laws, not because most of us behave decently, but because a small number don’t. I’m afraid that the vet analogy, if it points anywhere, it points the other way.” 

No-one is denying there are very tragic endoflife cases. But, as the old saying goes, “hard cases make bad law”. 

The Latin root for the word “compassion” is pati, which means to suffer. The prefix “com” means “with”. So “compassion” in its truest sense means to “suffer with”.  

As Emma Sanna wrote on the US Catholic blog, another way of putting that is to “suffer together”. It always implies a “reciprocal action”.  

“Compassion”, she wrote, “means standing in relationship with someone else  allowing yourself to experience their world and their suffering, as if it were your own”. 

The cold procedures of the End of Life Choice Act hardly seem to fit this.  

Rightly has Pope Francis, on many occasions, called attempts to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia, a “false compassion”. Let this be remembered on October 17. 

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Michael Otto

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