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Peer Pressure Makes Poor Public Policy: Research Submitted to the New Zealand Parliament Regarding the "End-of-Life Choice Bill" (2019)

 

Testimony

Jacqueline Abernathy,

Ph.D., M.S.S.W.

Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Tarleton State University in the Master of Public Administration Program

Bioethics in Law & Culture

Winter 2019      vol. 2  issue  1

Attn: Members of the New Zealand Parliament,

 

I write today with the following submission regarding the End-of Life Choice Bill, to offer my expertise and general concerns about this legislation with members of the New Zealand Parliament. I am an Assistant Professor in the Masters of Public Administration Program at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, Texas USA and my research focuses on bills like the one before you that govern end-of-life decisions. I speak today for only myself but would like to share my most recent research findings with you as well as long-standing principles that apply specifically to legislation like the End of Life Choice Bill. There are many physicians and other experts who can speak to the many aspects of this bill that so clearly present a grave public health threat, but few academic researchers that look specifically at these laws and how they come into effect. It is my hope that this information can better inform your decision to follow in the footsteps of other legislative bodies worldwide that routinely and overwhelmingly reject such proposals after hearing testimony by experts like myself

 

While there are a whole host of concerns I have regarding provisions of this proposed legislation that I could address from the academic literature, I want to limit my testimony today to my own studies about the innovation and proliferation of assisted suicide laws. This is why I found a particular statement on the Explanatory Note of the bill so troublesome. It states: “The state of the law in New Zealand is increasingly out of step with public opinion and with developments overseas.” It is troublesome for several reasons:

 

  1. First, it suggests that those entrusted with learning and applying the objective truth about what is best for the health and welfare of citizens (you, the legislator) should abdicate that responsibility and pass dangerous legislation if you feel the public requests it. This would be dereliction of duty. Fortunately, most legislative bodies upload their duty and reject these bills upon hearing the dangers from expert witnesses.

  2. Secondly, it implies that public opinion on this issue is informed when, rather, it is merely manipulated. Polls on this issue can change up to 19 points just based upon the words chosen to ask people their opinion- even when the issue itself has not changed. Assisted suicide remains the same and changes in public opinion are only due to changes in political marketing, not the truth about healthcare options and needs.

  3. Third, it is simply not true that laws prohibiting assisted suicide are out-of-step with other countries. Rather, these developments occur rarely and almost exclusively through affronting the legislative process designed to stop bills that present such a significant safety threat to citizens. They occur through by-passing the legislature: going directly to the uninformed voter or compelling a judge to overturn law.

 

My most recent research presented at the Southern Political Science Conference this past January (attached) addresses all three of these points.[i] It indicates that assisted suicide bills are failing in the United States as often (and for the same reasons) as they always have met their defeat. The following graphic from the paper (Figure 1) shows the trends with assisted suicide bills that remain thus far, very static.

 

 

Figure 1:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The paper looks at the increased rate at which these bills are introduced and the reasons they still fail. It explains how in three decades of attempted legislation, only one state: Vermont, managed to see a bill through the entire legislative process. The paper considered that the tide may be changing after the 2015 special session victory in California and the council in D.C. the following year, but case studies indicate that those bills were the beneficiaries of procedural shortcuts, without which passage would be close to an impossibility. D.C. needs only seven votes to pass legislation and in California, the legislation failed the full session and was only rushed through by reshuffling the deck in a special session. The bill had previously failed because, again, legislators were concerned about public safety when faced with the monumental and irreconcilable task of creating a law that allows one group of citizens to commit medical suicide while simultaneously trying to protect the general public from doing the same.

 

This is why a vast majority of Western U.S. states (and Canada) that allow assisted suicide only have such laws by usurping the legislative process: going directly to the uninformed voter through a ballot initiative (Oregon, Washington, Colorado) or going to judges to bypass both the citizens and the legislative process (Montana, briefly New Mexico and all of Canada). Vermont stands alone as the one state with a bill that survived full legislative vetting in 2013. Most bills die when subjected to legislative scrutiny.

 

In sum, the laws of New Zealand are in perfect congruence with laws of U.S. states that have examined assisted suicide bills and rejected them time and again for the same reasons. Canadian provinces like Quebec also routinely and sounded rejected assisted suicide before being railroaded by the courts in 2015. Because loopholes exist to circumvent the legislative process and allow dangerous legislation to proceed is not a reason to entertain such bills, but a call to look at these bills with caution.

Sincerely,

Jacqueline H. Abernathy

jabernathy@tarleton.edu

Assistant Professor, Master of Public Administration Program

Tarleton State University

Fort Worth, Texas, USA

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[i] Conference Draft “Innovation and Diffusion of Assisted Suicide Laws in U.S. States: Recent Trends and Political Strategies”