Bias, Bigotry, And Euthanasia
DR STUART LANGE
Arguably one of the most revealing public debates taking place in New Zealand over the last week was one on newshub nation, between Dr Sinead Donnelly (a medical specialist with extensive experience of palliative care and dying people in four countries, and a Senior Lecturer at Otago University Wellington) and David Seymour (a politician, and campaigner for the End of Life Choice Act). You can watch it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJHdQM460wQ&feature=youtu.be&t=668
With deep feeling, Dr Donnelly stated her view and that of many other medical professionals that the End of Life Choice Act is an unsafe and ‘dangerous’ law, which could imperil the lives of thousands of vulnerable people every year. She referred to how many doctors see the Act as entirely ineffective in safeguarding against ‘coercion’, which is impossible to detect, as it is often an internalisation of felt external pressures and suggestions. Mr Seymour responded asserted that the safeguards were ‘rigorous’, but unconvincingly.
What was especially shocking about the interview was that Mr Seymour accused Dr Donnelly of ‘just making up false objections’ in ‘an attempt to mislead’, and that she should just come out and honestly admit that her objections to euthanasia are all based on her religious views. This accusation was obviously deeply offensive to Dr Donnelly. She replied that her objections were entirely based on her clinical experience and the views of many others doctors and lawyers that the Act was very unsafe. She also said that Mr Seymour’s accusation was ‘disgraceful sectarian comment’ and ‘bigotry at its utmost’.
A week or so earlier, Mr Seymour had taken a similar approach in his response to a statement of the Catholic Bishops. Instead of addressing their points about the lack of strong safeguards in the Act, he said that the bishops ‘may have a philosophical view that life belongs to God’, but ‘they don't have the right to force it on others’. He added that that ‘if the bishops want their freedoms respected, they need to engage in honest debate that respects others have difference choices from theirs’. Again, the implication was that religious people are being dishonest in the reasons they give for opposing the End of Life Choice Act, and that their criticisms should be disregarded.
So is it true that it is only ‘religious’ people who oppose the End of Life Choice Act? No, clearly not. Is it true that many ‘religious’ people do oppose it? Yes. Is their objection on ‘religious’ grounds? To a significant extent, yes: ‘religious’ people have a very high regard for the God-given value of human life, and many of them prioritise the care of vulnerable people over their own individual freedoms. Should ‘religious’ people be free to hold and articulate their views publically? Absolutely yes. Are ‘religious’ people somehow being deceitful or scaremongering in exposing the weaknesses and dangers in this Act? No, these are entirely valid critiques. Are ‘religious’ people seeking to impose their own personal ‘religious’ morality on society? No, they are making a legitimate ethical case that this Act is not safe for society in the long run, especially for society’s old, sick, frail, and disabled; the care of society’s vulnerable is certainly a moral issue, and all members of society depend on that for our own safety. Is a society that dismisses ‘religious’ viewpoints going to be safe for anyone? We think not.
The Real Meaning of Secularism
There is a common belief in New Zealand society at the moment, particularly around the current referendum questions, that because New Zealand is a secular society any argument that is largely promoted by Christians is invalid, even if the argument only invokes secular reasons and not Christian ones. The assumption seems to be that because Christians are motivated by their Christian principles, their arguments should be considered suspect. Why? Because even when Christians are giving secular reasons for arguing something they are approaching matters with a Christian bias and their argument must therefore be rejected as unsound and irrelevant. But is this fair? Not at all!
What does it even mean to truly be a ‘secular’ society? There is debate about that. But the best definition of a secular society, and the most inclusive one, is that the State should be neutral in all matters concerning religion. In such a society, people are free to worship or not worship as they please. Secularism means the State must not favour one faith over another. Just as importantly (and this is the key point that many non-religious secularists miss), a secular State should not favour non-religion over religion (or vice-versa). Non-religious secularists make a mistake when they assume that secularism means the State should value non-religion over religion. Favouring non-religion is not true secularism, it is just being anti-religious. And being anti-religious is in itself a religious view.
Most non-religious people tend to believe that all religions are relative: that most religions contain some truths (e.g. love your neighbour), but the idea that one is ultimately and uniquely true seems definitely false. They may cite the classic story of the elephant and the blind men, or something like it:
No religion has all the truth. Every religion is like six blind men grabbing an elephant. One blind man grabs the trunk and says, ‘God is like a hose.’ Another blind man grabs the elephant’s leg and says, ‘No, God is more like a tree stump.’ Another person grabs the elephant’s tail and says, ‘No, God is more like a string.’ So, you see, every religion has part of the truth, but nobody sees all the truth.
The fatal flaw with this story is that the only way non-religious persons could possibly know that every religion has part of the truth, but not most or all of it, is if non-religious persons themselves see the whole picture. The only way they could know that that all religions and their adherents are blind is if they themselves were not blind. The only way a non-religious person can say, ‘Nobody has superior religious knowledge’ is if they themselves have the superior religious knowledge which they have just said nobody else has.
The whole point of a secular society is that the State cannot and should not make that kind of claim about either religion or non-religion. A secular State must remain neutral, and in the public square religious and non-religious people should be allowed to promote their worldviews and make their arguments as they see fit. Of course, in a secular democracy, if a Christian hopes to convince an Atheist, or Hindu convince a Christian, or an Atheist convince a Muslim, of a particular policy, arguments based on presuppositions that all parties agree with will be more effective. But to write off arguments just because they come from Christians, or Muslims, or Atheists, is a form of the genetic fallacy.
A genetic fallacy is a logical fallacy where one judges something as either good or bad on the basis of where it comes from, or from whom it came. This fallacy avoids the argument by shifting focus onto something's or someone's origins. It's similar to an ad hominem fallacy in that it leverages existing negative perceptions to make someone's argument look bad, without actually presenting a case for why the argument itself lacks merit. Any reasoning that uses a logical fallacy as its basis should be abandoned.
In conclusion then, the common belief that because New Zealand is a secular society any argument that is largely promoted by Christians is invalid, even if the argument only invokes secular reasons and not Christian ones, is based on a misunderstanding of secularism and is a logical fallacy. Secularism does not mean the State should be anti-religion or that no religion should be allowed in the public square. Secularism, at its best and most inclusive, means the State, and thus the public square, should be neutral towards religious claims. It is this form of secularism that will allow all Kiwis a part to play in our democratic institutions, from Atheist, to Muslim, to Hindu, to the Christian, and everyone else as well.