Ahead of elections scheduled for next month, New Zealand’s bishops have come out strongly against euthanasia and urged voters “to give serious thoughts” about a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana.

The two issues will be decided by a referendum held alongside the Oct. 17 general elections, in which current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party is tapped to comfortably win.

In an election statement published on Sept. 21, New Zealand’s bishops said the pandemic showed that  “protecting life, especially the lives of those most vulnerable – from the beginning to the end of life – should be a cornerstone for our nation now and into the future.”

The bishops noted that the euthanasia referendum is not about medically-assisted dying in principle – which the Catholic Church opposes absolutely – but on the provisions of the End of Life Choice Act passed by New Zealand’s parliament last year, which the bishops say is not “fit for purpose.”

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“The New Zealand law is broader in scope and more liberal than one recently passed in Victoria, Australia, as well as laws in the United States. It will expose much larger numbers of people to the dangers of a premature death, people who are currently well-served by palliative care,” the bishops warn.

The bishops’ statement says the End of Life Choice Act does not give patients a right to request quality palliative care, the lack of which is a primary reason for choosing assisted death cited in reports from Canada and the United States.

“Overseas research shows that the demand for euthanasia is not driven by pain but by a range of personal and emotional factors, including the fear of being a burden and the fear of being disabled. These fears reflect negative attitudes towards the elderly and disabled that we know run deep in our society,” the bishops continue.

The statement also points out that existing New Zealand law already allows people to refuse to any medical treatment and to receive whatever level of pain relief they need, even to the point of being sedated if that is required: “This is not euthanasia, and nobody needs to die in pain,” the bishops affirm.

“In urging voters to say ‘No’ to the End of Life Choice Act, we speak from the extensive experience of healthcare providers, chaplains, priests and pastoral workers who care daily for the dying and their whanau,” the bishops say, using the Maori term describing an extended family.

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“Their experience includes an awareness of people’s vulnerability at the end of life, and the knowledge that quality palliative care can effectively manage physical pain as well as emotional, spiritual and psychological suffering. We believe that the people most at risk if we legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide are those most vulnerable to the suggestion they would be ‘better off dead’ – our elderly and disabled people who find themselves within the scope of the Act,” the statement continues.

“Elder abuse currently affects about 10 percent of our elderly despite the best efforts to prevent it. Voting ‘Yes’ to euthanasia in this context is dangerous. It is also naïve to think the Act can provide sufficient protection against this risk.”

A poll from Research New Zealand says 64 percent of the population are in favor of legalizing euthanasia, with just 18 percent opposed.

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Turning to the recreational cannabis referendum — medical marijuana is already legal in New Zealand — the bishops note that young people, particularly those still at school, are the group in society most vulnerable to the effects of marijuana.

“The referendum proposal sets 20 as the minimum age for buying and using cannabis. It seems counter-intuitive to believe that an age limit will stop young people using cannabis if cannabis becomes more easily available in the community. They will likely access it more easily, in the same way that under-18s currently access alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis; primarily through friends and family,” the statement says.

“Given these points, we think people do need to give serious thoughts to the issue, and we hope you will use your vote in an informed way that considers the impact of legalized recreational cannabis on the young and vulnerable in our communities,” the bishops say.

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According to a Horizon Research survey published in Stuff – a New Zealand news website – the cannabis referendum is too close to call: Both sides are receiving 49.5 percent of support, although the “No” vote slightly edges the “Yes” vote when limited to registered voters who say they are 100 percent certain of voting.

In their statement, the bishops argue that participation in elections doesn’t start when we enter the polling booth.

“Our participation starts when we begin to think about the questions before us and consider how the society we seek can be reflected in our political structures and public policies. Our participation in elections is about listening to the cries of the Earth and the cries of the poor, studying carefully the proposals of political parties, praying about them, and voting with our conscience,” the bishops say.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome