The religious right’s campaign to spike NZ's euthanasia referendum
In the leadup to the euthanasia referendum in New Zealand, an array of conservative Christian political organisations is running an expensive campaign to sow fear and doubt about the safety of the law. But why are they hiding their Christian identities, asks Graham Adams.
With only weeks to go before advance voting begins for the election, a very expensive campaign is running across mainstream and social media — and on billboards along roadsides — to persuade voters to say no in the assisted dying referendum.
The group behind this last-gasp attempt to sway voters is the Safer Future Charitable Trust, which is registered as a third party promoter with the Electoral Commission for the referendum. Its “public information” arm, Votesafe.nz, has devised an online quiz that has been shared more than 100,000 times, it has put up 250 billboards nationwide, and it has paid for ads to appear alongside news articles in major publications.
All are designed to create doubt about whether the End of Life Choice Act is “safe” — and thereby persuade voters that it should be rejected at the referendum.
The amount of money needed to mount this blitzkrieg against the Act is impressive. Andrew Denton, the prominent broadcaster who founded the national organisation Go Gentle Australia to champion assisted dying laws, says the New Zealand campaign involves “serious resources”, and “far in excess of anything we’ve seen in Australia”.
But if the money being spent by opponents such as Votesafe surprises Denton, their tactics don’t.
“Go Gentle has remained in touch with our friends in New Zealand and have watched as the referendum draws closer,” he says. “From long experience with the deceptive tactics of our opponents, we have identified similar ruses being played out in New Zealand — which the New Zealand media has been slow, or unable, or unwilling, to expose.
“We have found that opposition to assisted dying laws can almost always be sheeted back to organisations with conservative Christian values who make deliberate efforts to conceal their true motivations.
“Their aim is to thwart the wishes of the overwhelming majority — upwards of 80 per cent in Australia and closer to 70 per cent in New Zealand — who want to see more compassionate end-of-life choices.”
It’s certainly true that Votesafe never offers religious reasons for its opposition. In fact, when I asked why it didn’t, a spokesperson replied: “We find it strange that you bring religion into a legal and medical argument.”
But what supporters of a law change find really strange, however, is that so many of those who lead the groups hostile to reform have conservative religious backgrounds but rarely declare that fact or mention religion at all.
Votesafe’s chair and campaign manager, Henoch Kloosterboer, for instance, has a Diploma in Biblical Studies, Theology, from New Zealand’s Laidlaw College, which says its students are “united by evangelical faith and a common commitment to working out the Gospel in twenty-first century Aotearoa”. Courses on offer include “God and Creation”
Votesafe’s trustees are Kloosterboer, Gael Goulter and Richard Martin. Last year, Goulter was one of three co-authors who submitted on behalf of the Maxim Institute to the parliamentary select committee considering the Abortion Legislation Bill 2019.
Maxim’s submission opposed abortion reform — just as it had opposed assisted dying in earlier submissions and same-sex marriage before that.
All this is hardly surprising, of course, given that the Maxim Institute belongs to the New Zealand Christian Network, which itself belongs to the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). The WEA subscribes to “an orthodox biblical” position that includes a commitment to “sanctity of life”.
Kloosterboer is also the creative director of DefendNZ, which is a campaign run by Voice for Life to prevent the End of Life Choice Act coming into force. On its website, Voice for Life bills itself as “New Zealand’s oldest and largest pro-life organisation” and boasts of a lineage that goes back 50 years to the formation of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) in 1970.
SPUC was, of course, closely allied to the Catholic Church in its campaign against abortion throughout the 1970s. As Te Ara Encyclopedia puts it: “The Catholic Church was SPUC’s most important source of members and money.”
Like the Catholic Church and many Pentecostal groups, Voice for Life is “dedicated to building a culture where human life is valued and respected from conception to natural death” and wants a New Zealand “where acts of abortion and euthanasia are unthinkable and unnecessary”.
In keeping with Voice for Life’s ultra-conservative stance, DefendNZ launched an extensive video campaign in March 2019 in opposition to the End of Life Choice Bill.
The Catholic Church has also endorsed Votesafe as a reliable source of information — including its online quiz, which has been widely criticised as slanted.
In a letter sent on August 10, Christchurch bishops firmly instructed congregations to vote “no” — and recommended Votesafe as well as four other organisations opposing the End of Life Choice Act: Family First, Risky Law, the Care Alliance and the Maxim Institute.
As with Votesafe, each of these groups opposing the End of Life Choice Act have strong links to conservative religion — but they are links that are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the media.
In fact, once you connect the links between the leaders of the organisations involved in the campaign to defeat the End of Life Choice Act, you end up with a wiring diagram that spans the religious right.
Risky Law, for example, was authorised by Vote No to the End of Life Act, which is registered as a promoter for the End of Life Choice Act referendum. The lobby group has been endorsed not only by the Christchurch Catholic bishops mentioned above, but it is also being recommended by the church’s bishops to the board members of Catholic schools as a guide to how “dangerous” they think the Act is.
The chairman of the lobby group is Dr Peter Thirkell. Dr Thirkell chaired the Wellington Ecumenical Chaplaincy Trust Board from 2004-2017 and is a former secretary of the Care Alliance.
The Care Alliance was set up in 2012 by National MP Maggie Barry and John Kleinsman, director of the Catholic bishops’ mouthpiece, the Nathaniel Centre, to agitate against MP Maryan Street’s assisted dying bill.
Unfortunately, as Denton noted, the reluctance by opponents to admit to any religious motivation for their campaign against the End of Life Choice Act is paralleled by the media’s apparent unwillingness to force them on the issue.
When Caralise Trayes promoted her book The Final Choice on various news media, interviewers managed to overlook her background as a member of the Ignite Faith Centre, a Pentecostal church in Arkles Bay, Whangaparaoa.
Having cast herself as a naive, wide-eyed journalist determined to discover the “truth” about assisted dying, Trayes certainly wasn’t going to draw attention to her faith herself.
When RNZ’s Colin Peacock asked whether deeply held religious convictions would mean a believer could never be “persuaded by any of the arguments” for a law change, Trayes replied: “Possibly, but I can’t speak on behalf or represent them in that capacity.”
For Trayes to pretend she can’t speak for those with conservative religious views when her own church promotes them was an astonishing evasion.
Despite Trayes’ professed neutrality, of the 21 people whose views she examined in her book, 17 were opposed to a law change.
In June, Richard McLeod, who heads Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders, was interviewed by John Campbell on TVNZ’s Breakfast, alongside palliative care doctor and assisted dying advocate Dr Libby Smales. No doubt aware of McLeod’s religious convictions, Campbell asked if McLeod had a “moral opposition to euthanasia per se” but he didn’t delve deeper into where that “moral opposition” might come from. When Campbell asked if any assisted dying law would ever satisfy him, McLeod fobbed him off.
In fact, McLeod told North & South magazine in 2017 that he is a member of Opus Dei (Latin for “Work of God”), the ultra-conservative Catholic organisation for lay people made infamous in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — and notorious for its practice of penitence, or what St Paul called “the crucifixion of the flesh”. For enthusiastic followers that can include wearing a spiked garter around their upper thigh, and using a cord to flagellate their back or buttocks.
Conservative Catholic teaching — as well as that of some Pentecostal and evangelical churches — makes it clear that both abortion and assisted dying are akin to murder.
As the Christchurch bishops’ letter put it: “The Church is very clear that she respects life from conception to natural death.”
It’s worth noting that the Catholic Church’s position with regard to the sick and dying is not fully expressed by a simple reference to “the sanctity of life”. According to the Charter for Health Care Workers, released by the Vatican in English in 1995: Sickness and suffering afford “close union with the sufferings of Jesus”, which gives illness “an extraordinary spiritual fruitfulness”.
In February this year, McLeod was one of two people leading a day-long workshop at Auckland University for ProLife NZ — a group of students dedicated to opposing any liberalisation of abortion or assisted dying laws. Its website opens with a photo of young people marching against abortion and holding a banner that reads: “Life begins at conception — no exception”.
The stated aim of the workshop was to train “pro-life activists” to “help defeat the End of Life Choice Bill at the coming referendum”.
The other leader participating was Renee Joubert, CEO of Euthanasia-Free NZ.
When I asked Joubert why her campaign against the End of Life Choice Act never mentioned religion, she replied: “We are a secular organisation with supporters across the political and religious spectrum. Some have religious affiliations and some don’t. In most cases we don’t know whether people have such affiliations or where they are on the political spectrum. Frankly, we don’t care.”
If the rank-and-file includes a range of beliefs, most of its leaders and founding members appear to be conservative Christians. In 2015 when Euthanasia-Free NZ was incorporated, its chairman was Richard Harward. He is a former Supreme Knight of the Knights of the Southern Cross New Zealand — which describes itself as: “A society of Catholic men in New Zealand actively involved in supporting the Church and each other through practical works, fraternity and promotion of the Gospel.”
Several members named on the founding document belong to the deeply religious Penk family, while National MP Chris Penk — who paid tribute in his maiden speech in Parliament to the “overriding importance of fidelity, family and faith” — was the solicitor who witnessed signatures.
Why the media fails to take an interest in the religious right’s influence on the assisted dying debate remains a mystery. Possibly, it is because New Zealanders are too polite to ask about someone’s religion, or perhaps it is because so many people know so little about religion that they don’t understand that fundamentalist and conservative Christians believe “Life is a gift from God that only He can interrupt.”
Another possible reason is that we don’t have a group as well organised as Go Gentle to confront the religious right. As Denton puts it: “A great deal of our work in Go Gentle has focussed on the necessary task of ‘bullshit busting’ — identifying and exposing the many deceptions and techniques used by opponents of assisted dying laws to sway public opinion.”
The churches, of course, realised a long time ago that religious arguments would cut no ice with a majority of New Zealanders. So the religious right now puts forward only “secular” arguments via ostensibly non-religious proxies, zeroing in on any parts of the legislation they can portray as weaknesses. Their aim, as Denton describes it, is to create fear, uncertainty and doubt.
The fact that David Seymour’s original bill was heavily amended to take account of critics’ objections — including restricting eligibility to the terminally ill with six months or less to live and making it explicit that mental illness, disability or advanced age alone cannot qualify anyone for an assisted death — appears to have made little difference to them. Nor the fact that a clear majority of MPs, 69-51, decided last November that the Act was safe to be presented to the public for ratification in a referendum.
The strategy adopted in this current saturation campaign by groups such as Votesafe is one that has been used widely overseas. They claim they are not opposed to euthanasia per se — “We’re just opposed to THIS bill.”
However, when Votesafe was challenged on Facebook to ask the lawyers who had critically analysed the End of Life Choice Act to “provide a draft of legislation that you believe would be safe”, it prevaricated.
As Denton puts it: “For religious conservatives, ‘Not This Bill’ means ‘Not Any Bill’.”
No one, of course, is arguing that followers of any religion should not have an unfettered right to express whatever view they like on assisted dying or any other topic. That is what freedom of religion means.
However, if they don’t reveal their loyalties and agendas when discussing assisted dying, it is impossible to know whether they are arguing in good faith — and whether any evidence would change their minds.
Certainly, someone who believes that your life belongs to God and only He can shorten it — or that suffering is a way of sharing in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross — is never going to agree to any law allowing assisted dying, no matter how many safeguards are set up or how often inquiries from other jurisdictions show the practice is safe or free from abuse — as they overwhelmingly do.
Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom
This article was first published by the Democracy Project NZ.
It is republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 license.
For more information about the NZ referendum, got to referendums.govt.nz