Euthanasia referendum: How religious Kiwis are deciding which way to vote on the End of Life Choice Bill

New Zealanders will vote on the End of Life Choice Bill at next month's euthanasia referendum, but it's proving to be a moral conundrum for New Zealand's religious community.

While some God-fearing Kiwis see assisted dying as the compassionate approach to unavoidable pain, to others it represents a threat to religious beliefs about the sanctity of life, the value of suffering, and the nature of death.

Here's how New Zealand's religious population is dealing with the quandary of whether to legalise euthanasia when they head to the polls on October 17.

'Life has something immortal': How religion views assisted dying

Religious historian and retired Massey University professor Peter Lineham says euthanasia grates on many religious New Zealanders because their view is that life is sacred - a gift handed to us by a higher power.

"[The view is] that life has something immortal, or eternal, or quite other than the simple physical existence," he explained.

"Almost every religion sees the body as a shell in which some kind of spiritual presence exists. And it's that that makes the questions about the ending of life particularly difficult."

Euthanasia referendum: How religious Kiwis are deciding which way to vote on the End of Life Choice Bill

Indeed while there's diversity of opinion among New Zealand's various religions - and even within a single one - euthanasia is so antithetical to some belief systems that it's expressly forbidden. 

The Roman Catholic Church issued a 'Declaration of Euthanasia' in 1980 condemning assisted dying as a crime against both life and God, while Islamic literature says God decides how long each person lives and explicitly prohibits planning or knowing one's time of death in advance.

For most other religions, however - Judaism, Jainism and Shinto among them - 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.

Meanwhile Reverend Glynn Cardy - the progressive leader of St Luke's Presbyterian Church in Auckland - acknowledges the Christian tradition has long made efforts to preserve life, but argues believers should make their own decision on euthanasia.

In favour of legalising assisted dying himself, Rev Cardy says Christians on both sides of the debate are ultimately motivated by "compassion for the vulnerable".

"Those who oppose assisted dying are worried about those who are mentally fragile or disabled, and they believe this [End of Life Choice] Act might expand out... Most churches have expressed that opinion - they're opposed to assisted dying because of the vulnerable," he said.

"Others of us are also motivated by compassion. We're motivated for the 2 to 5 percent whose dying and pain cannot be relieved through medication. If they're dying and in pain, I think it's compassionate to help relieve that."

'A good thing' or 'to be avoided'? How religions view suffering

Under the End of Life Choice Act, adult New Zealanders who have a terminal illness and less than six months to live would be eligible for euthanasia.

The rationale behind the proposed legislation is that it will offer relief to Kiwis going through unbearable, unrelievable suffering at the end of their lives.

Lineham says the perception of suffering being something to avoid at all costs is one of the key reasons many religious people are opposed to euthanasia.

"The suffering dimension is generally seen in most religions as a good thing, not a bad thing," he explained.

Peter Lineham.
Peter Lineham.

"For many religions, the experience of living is a step towards a future state. This worldly experience is seen as part of a total journey and often has a kind of purgative effect - that you need to be purified or cleansed or made more whole.

"As a result, if there is pain or suffering we don't see it as a lost cause - we see it as contributing to the next stage."

This view is not the same across the religious spectrum, however. To Rev Cardy, suffering is something people should steer clear of - and he believes it's a Christian's duty to relieve the suffering of others.

"When we say we believe in the sanctity of life, we don't believe in the sanctity of suffering," he said.

"When a community is going through a time of suffering - like New Zealand is now in this COVID time - the role of spiritual leaders like myself is to offer support and sustenance to people who are suffering.

"It doesn't mean we're wanting to say 'bring on suffering'. That's not the Christian tradition, as far as I understand it."

Reverend Glynn Cardy.
Reverend Glynn Cardy.

The question of whether Christians should vote in favour or against legalising euthanasia is made all the more difficult because there are no examples of it in scripture - no roadmap showing the best way to act when faced with such a decision.

As a result, Rev Cardy feels there's a tension between wanting to prevent people from taking their own lives and showing compassion to those who are facing unrelievable pain.

"Compassion is well-grounded in scripture and in the life and teachings of Jesus," he explained.

"But there's no scriptures someone can pull out and say 'here's someone terminal, and here's the justification for killing them instead of letting them carry on suffering' - you won't find a part like that in the Bible."

Why religious arguments against euthanasia are 'unsatisfactory'

Lineham says while there are several religious justifications for being opposed to euthanasia, the vast majority of these are "completely unsatisfactory" when it comes to New Zealand's current discourse on the issue.

This is predominantly because more than 2.2 million people - almost half the country's entire population - identified as having no religion in the 2018 Census. This rise in secularism has seen it overtake Christianity, further diminishing the status and political power of religion in New Zealand.

As a result, discussions about how euthanasia impacts on the sacredness of life, the value of suffering or what happens when we die no longer resonate to the same degree with Kiwis as they would've just a few decades ago.

"I imagine that those who are going to lead campaigns fighting euthanasia… are going to have to find other arguments to persuade people as well," Lineham said. "The religious argument is one that will only have currency for people whom religion is really important."

Euthanasia referendum: How religious Kiwis are deciding which way to vote on the End of Life Choice Bill

Census data shows New Zealand has lost its religion very rapidly; in 2001, just over 1 million people reported having no religion - a figure that more than doubled in the space of just 17 years.

But it's not the only recent change influencing how society views death, Lineham says. Another is that the medical advances of the last century have made life-extending treatments so much more effective.

"The contemporary shaping of life has meant there's a really profound change in the way in which bodies can be kept alive," he said. "It seems very easy with modern medicine to sustain the physical continuity with very little regard for what this person's full experience of life may be.

"This is the modern hospice movement which, along with other movements, has tried to ensure that the scientific preservation of life is balanced with the quality of life. It no longer seems quite as clear as it once did what is the natural point at which to exit life."

Euthanasia referendum: How religious Kiwis are deciding which way to vote on the End of Life Choice Bill

Lineham says in the 1900s, long before these medical advances, the experience of violent and painful death would've been all around people - it was a period that hosted two world wars, after all.

Now, many people have never even seen death - and the historian argues society actively tries to hide it away.

"The euthanasia movement is in a sense part of that hiding away of the realities and pains of death," he said. "Here is the odd paradox: essentially, [a society] which has learnt the techniques of controlling pain nevertheless finds death the great unmentionable subject.

"In some ways, the euthanasia debate is a reflection of the uncertainty of values of a society where religion isn't nearly so important in controlling how we think about life."

However, he expects New Zealand's religious population to adapt well if assisted dying is made legal.

"I think Christians and Muslims have learnt to live in a secular society," he said.

"I think in our society, if we end up with euthanasia then Christians and people from other religions will get involved in supporting those who offer mechanisms that mean people won't go down that route."

Kiwis still reluctant to say death 'the end of the story'

Lineham says while secular, pro-euthanasia Kiwis speak of a concrete end to their existence, they revert to spiritual terms when people close to them die. This, he says, shows there remains a sense even among this group of an "intangible" life, of which death is the most mysterious aspect of all.

"Phrases like [passed away] suggest something has slipped out of our world, and we're very reluctant to say that's the end of the story," he said. "In one sense, the moment we're born, we're on the path towards death and we have no idea when the Grim Reaper will turn up and exact his or her toll and call us away."

Rev Cardy is unsure what happens when we die. He says he's "fairly agnostic" when it comes to whether life exists before or after our time on Earth - but he believes and hopes it does.

"I'd like to think there's some connection particularly after death with those I've loved and known, but really I don't know - and I don't think anyone knows," he said.

"People hope, particularly if they've had a miserable life, that there's something afterwards - and all through history there's been that hope. My belief is that God is all around and through everything - not a man or a supreme being who's up in the sky or off the planet.

"So the mystery of life, the sacredness of life, is through all and in all."