Euthanasia referendum: Catholic clergy say assisted dying runs against core values, Islamic leader threatens Muslims who choose it with Hell

Kiwi Catholics and Muslims may not be eligible for some of their most sacred religious rituals if they opt to end their lives by euthanasia now that it's nearly legal.

A referendum on the End of Life Choice Bill - which gives people with a terminal illness the option of requesting assisted dying - was held last month, with final results showing Kiwis had voted resoundingly in favour of it coming into force.

This means from November 6, 2021 - a year to the day from when special votes were counted and official results released - euthanasia will be given the green light for the first time.

While most Kiwis are in favour of legalising assisted dying, the referendum result hasn't gone down well in some of New Zealand's faith communities.

Many religious Kiwis oppose the End of Life Choice Act for ethical reasons, citing concerns with a perceived lack of reverence for life and its implications for our most vulnerable citizens, while others support it on the grounds it relieves suffering.

For Catholics and Muslims, however, the response to the referendum result has been almost unequivocal, as both religions explicitly condemn assisted dying.

The Catholic Church issued a 'Declaration of Euthanasia' in 1980, condemning the procedure as a crime against both life and God, while a recent letter written by the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog and endorsed by Pope Francis describes it as "intrinsically evil".

Meanwhile Islamic literature asserts that God decides how long each person lives, and explicitly prohibits planning or knowing one's time of death in advance.

'Our priests are already making calls': Catholic clergy prepare for law change

Dr John Kleinsman - the Director of the Nathaniel Centre of Bioethics, an agency of the NZ Catholic Bishops Conference - said the referendum result was one that brought "intense disappointment" to the Church.

While he admitted there were Catholics who were in favour of assisted dying - as well as many secular Kiwis who were against it - he said opposing euthanasia was a "core value" of the Church.

"[Assisted dying] does run against the core values and ethics of the Catholic Church. Catholic teaching is very clear about our stance towards euthanasia," he said.

"Concern for the vulnerable is part of what I think Christianity is about, and certainly what our Catholic tradition is about. Having said that, our opposition has always been because of the risk this law would present to those who are most vulnerable."

He told Newshub the passing of the End of Life Choice Act into law means Catholic clergy will spend the next 12 months in contemplation and numerous meetings as they wrestle with the new law's implications.

One of those talking points will be whether last rites will still be made available to those who choose to end their lives through euthanasia.

Dr John Kleinsman says talks among Cathlolic leaders will begin soon after euthanasia was legalised. Photo credit: Getty

Last rites are a treasured part of the Catholic tradition. They are the final prayers and ministrations offered to a Catholic before death, and are composed of three parts: the taking of Communion, the ritual prayer of Commendation of the Dying, and Prayers for the Dead.

But given the Church's opposition to assisted dying, there are still conversations to be had about whether, in line with some senior Canadian clergy, it opts to make those who choose assisted dying ineligible for the ritual.

"We've got 12 months to think about that before it actually comes into force. There are of course other jurisdictions around the world where some form of assisted death is already legal, so we will be speaking with people overseas about that," Dr Kleinsman said.

"[Last rites] will be one of those things we'll be talking about, but our priests and ministers are already making all sorts of calls in all sorts of areas.

"They will be approaching this from a very pastoral perspective, I would hope, and will be responding to the needs of families and the person who is dying."

'They will dwell in Hell forever': Islamic leader says Qur'an is clear on euthanasia

One of New Zealand's most senior Islamic leaders says while Muslims accept the referendum result, they're disappointed in the country's decision and will continue to oppose euthanasia.

Mustafa Farouk, the executive of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), said Muslims have the right to choose euthanasia - but they shouldn't expect to be honoured at death by their faith community if they do so.

In Islam, there are many rituals at the time of death. The deceased is bathed and shrouded in cloth, before receiving the Ṣalāt al-Janāzah - a funeral prayer that seeks pardon for the dead. The body is then buried with the head facing Mecca.

Farouk said there still remains an obligation to ensure the deceased is buried if they opt for assisted dying, but indicated they would forfeit an Islamic funeral by doing so, telling Newshub a lot of people simply "would not attend".

"The Qur'an is very clear that we cannot take life - not only take the life of someone, but we can't even take our own life. If anybody takes their own life, they will dwell in Hell forever. There is no grey area there whatsoever," he said.

"When a person dies in the Islamic community, we have a collective obligation. That means if we hear a person has died, one person from each family has to attend a burial, because that is the right of the person who passed away.

"If a person takes his life, I'm relieved of that right. I don't need to attend at all... People have rights - if someone in our community goes to take their life, they should not expect that people give them their final rites."

Like Catholic clergy, Farouk says Islamic leaders will also meet over the next year to discuss next steps in light of the law change.

"We will call meetings at the right times," he said. "We are citizens of New Zealand, we accept the memorandum although we don't like it.

"But the fact we have the choice not to participate is a good thing. We'll be looking to help advise our community of their religious obligations. "

Why NZ's Catholics and Muslims oppose the End of Life Choice Act

Beyond it being contrary to their respective belief systems, Dr Kleinsman and Farouk both view the End of Life Choice Act as a poor piece of legislation that doesn't adequately protect vulnerable people.

Dr Kleinsman told Newshub that compared to similar laws overseas, the new euthanasia legislation - which he describes as "a bad and dangerous piece of law" - lacks numerous safeguards.

"There are very poor processes for detecting coercion; the two doctors needn't know the person at all; the processes for establishing competency are very weak... there are difficulties in prognosis; there is no screening for depression," he said.

"I'd go so far as to say this is a cynical law given the disparity between different groups of New Zealanders in terms of health outcomes and access to palliative care.

"It's called the End of Life Choice Act but it actually only mandates one choice - the choice to end your life. It doesn't actually offer people the right or a choice to access good-quality palliative care."

Farouk agrees, telling Newshub he hopes the Government will put in place processes to improve palliative care and relieve loneliness, which may be a factor in a person's decision to choose assisted dying.

A Facebook post by FIANZ in the lead-up to the referendum identifies nine concerns in regard to the End of Life Choice Act - including that it may disproportionately affect Kiwi Muslims, many of whom are refugees and comparatively poor.

"In cases of severe illness where health care costs are high and carers are scarce, members of the community could request euthanasia out of guilt… as a way of relieving the society of their burden," FIANZ President Ibrar Sheik writes.

"Persons in our community who are in extreme pain and clouded by depression, shock and grief could make irrational decisions… not giving themselves time for possible recovery or coming to terms with their condition.

"Passing this legislation will be tantamount to saying to our terminally ill and disabled that their lives are less valuable to society than the youthful."

Other religions are split on whether euthanasia is to be avoided or embraced. 

For many other Christian denominations - as well as for those who practice Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism or Shinto - there is no consensus on euthanasia.

Some Hindus believe helping end a painful life is a fulfilment of their moral obligation, while for others it's seen as a disturbance of the natural separation of body and spirit and a threat to the cycle of reincarnation.

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