The feminisation of leadership and public discussion.

Over the last two decades New Zealand politics has had significant feminine influence.

Jenny Shipley became New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister, taking over (rather being elected) and being in charge from 1999 to 1999.

Helen Clark earned her way to the top of the Labour party and then helped Labour ‘win’ three successive elections, leading from 1999 to 2008.

John Key, Bill English and Steven Joyce brought back significant male influence in our politics for the next nine years. Key played on blokiness, quite successfully, a lot, but English moved a bit towards a more caring approach to finance.

Then in 2017 there was a major switch back to feminine influence when Jacinda Ardern turned around a flailing and failing Labour Party to take over the Prime Ministerial office – to an extent ironically thanks to the support of and baubles won by Winston Peters (NZ First does not appear to be a bastion of feminine influence).

Ardern’s takeover of power was sudden and a surprise, but her promise to put more kindness into Government has been largely accepted as a positive, even though she is yet to substantially live up to her PR.

So politics in New Zealand has had and still has a fairly ‘feminist’ influence leading into and for the duration so far of this century. It has been a largely uncontroversial transformation.

Alongside this, while women are still in a minority in some things, especially business management, some balance is apparent in notable or influential positions, with women becoming Governor General and Chief Justice – Dame Sian Elias was the first woman to hold the office, appointed on the advice of Jenny Shipley, and Helen Winkelman has just been announced as Elias’ successor.

This has been happening over several decades.

What has seemed to suddenly change this year is the attempted feminisation of public discussion. This has been brewing for some time, but was given impetus by high profile issues like the Harvey Weinstein fall and the resulting #metoo movement. Properly addressing male abuses of power was long overdue.

But this has led to boldness by some feminist types (there are varieties of feminism) to try not just claim a right to drive public discussions on issues, but some have attempted to discredit and diminish male influences in discussions.

John Roughan (a male!) discusses this in Despite Trump, politics is getting softer

It is not just that more women are coming to the fore in politics but the wider influence of that, in business, the media and the way people are now supposed to think, speak and behave. It has changed quite rapidly, mostly for the better, but I think it is getting excessive.

Some attempts to shut up male voices in discussions is excessive – addressing imbalances often involves some over compensating – but it isn’t really getting a lot of traction.

The gentrification of politics is not confined to women. Its ultimate expression came from a man I would have counted among the last converts, Trevor Mallard. As Speaker of the House he has commissioned an independent inquiry into bullying and sexual harassment at Parliament. National, meanwhile, commissioned a review of its own culture after complaints against its ejected MP Jami-Lee Ross.

But these excesses are a small price to pay for the civilising influence of women in politics and the professions, and the progress they are making against sexual harassment. Few large law firms would have read the report of the inquiry into Russell McVeagh without looking hard in a mirror and making changes. All over the Western world, men who take advantage of power and position are being forced to take another look at themselves.

This is a good thing. Men who have abused power and abused women are a small minority but they have done a lot of damage.

There is unfairness from ostracising all men, and dangers from trial by media/social media and also from mischaracterising discomfort from criticism or holding to account as bullying. Lumping trivial offences in with serious things like abuse and rape can detract from dealing with the serious properly.

But this is all just relatively minor imperfection in addressing problems that need to be addressed by making it clear that male abuses of power are unacceptable.

I’ve written a bit about attacks on free speech by some feminists who think that redressing an imbalance demands that males, particularly white middle aged and older males shut up and keep out of discussions.

I think that the best way of dealing with this is to continue to participate in and promote discussions – and address the imbalances by making it easier or more inviting for female input into discussions.

It is far better to improve forums for debate for everyone, and while feminists can and should advocate for their free speech, males can do similar rather than shrink away.

Feminisation doesn’t have to mean a takeover by a few extreme feminists. In public discussions it should aim at freedom of speech that is free from abuse.

Labour violins getting ahead of writing the symphony

One repeat criticism of Labour in Government, with Jacinda Ardern leading, is that they are talking the talk far more walking the policies. I think this criticism is justified.

So does John Roughan:  Labour violins play but ovation must wait

Labour governments have one habit that annoys me intensely. They love to trumpet big liberal social advances without doing the hard work. The last Labour Government made an art-form of this and the present one is shaping up to be just the same.

This week its Health Minister, David Clark, moved the final reading of the bill legalising medicinal cannabis and hailed it as “compassionate and progressive” legislation that would make a difference to people living in pain and nearing the end of their lives. You could almost hear the violins playing in Labour minds and see the wistful look in their eyes as they imagined this moment in a movie made for audiences susceptible to simplified social history.

While the medicinal cannabis bill is progress (anything would be progress compared to what National stalled) but it is hardly a great progressive moment. And the compassion is limited to some and excludes many others, like those who suffer from chronic pain and prefer safer, less addictive but illegal relief.

You had to read the news reports carefully to notice that a great deal of work on the bill, now law, has still to be done. “Little” details such as, what cannabis products? How will people know they are effective? Who will be allowed to make them? How are you going to restrict them to people genuinely in pain or terminally ill?

All those questions, and more, have been passed to officials in the Ministry of Health. Until they can work them out the legislation does almost nothing, it’s just a statute of intention.

And a problem with this is that the Ministry of Health has proven to be far from progressive in dealing with medicinal cannabis. We won’t know how much real progress the current bill will make for up to a year.

It annoys me intensely because it is dishonest. Not just politically, but intellectually dishonest, which you would not expect Labour people to be. I don’t understand how they can take pride in acts of principle that leave so many practical difficulties demanding answers.

Fair call from Roughan.

To my mind, if a principle is not practical there is probably something wrong with it.

Ironically, the one thing this week’s legislation has done immediately is provide the terminally ill with a legal defence should they be prosecuted for using the drug while it remains illegal. Since they were never likely to be prosecuted that pretty much confirms the status quo.

While Labour play the violins of progress the tune is often much the same as National’s.

Labour seems divided on the subject. Police Minister Stuart Nash and Health Minister Clark this week announced a toughening of the laws against the manufacture and sales of synthetics, classifying them as class A drugs which I guess means the end of the attempt to provide a legal framework for them.

At the same time they announced a directive to the police would be written into the Misuse of Drugs Act to use their discretion not to prosecute for mere possession of all drugs (all?) where a therapeutic approach might be more beneficial. Again, the status quo, for lesser classes of drugs anyway. Discretion works well enough in practice but how do you define it in law? More hard work for somebody else.

Much of the work on regulations for the medical marijuana was in fact done by a new MP in National’s caucus, a physician, Dr Shane Reti.

Reti spent last summer in the US talking to officials in states that have legalised the drug for medicinal use. On return, he drafted a private members’ bill that appeared fairly practical and capable of controlling the standard and distribution of cannabis in medicinal forms.

He convinced the National caucus to support legalisation and for a while it seemed the Government might write his proposals into its bill. But though he was deputy chair of the select committee on the bill, it didn’t happen. It is hard to know why.

Labour could hardly claim to be the great progressive party but helped by National.

Maybe this Government is using medical legalisation to soften the electorate for general decriminalisation before we get a referendum on that issue. Is that the kind of dishonesty we are dealing with? I prefer to think not, and that Reti’s work will not be wasted when National returns.

There is a real possibility that Labour has used the medicinal cannabis bill to appear to be doing something (that they had promised to do with urgency) but in fact have used it to kick the cannabis can down the road.

The violins play while the opportunity to be progressive runs away. It’s almost as if Labour are running away from it.

I was resigned to National continuing to stall progress on drug law reform, but especially after Labour’s promises their hollow violin promises are even more disappointing.

‘Hate speech’ – hateful expressions, or knowingly stirring up hate

I’ve seen this term used a number of times: “You don’t hate people.”

I have always seen ‘hate’ as a very strong term, but there seems to be a lot of hate today, often for trivial things.

The Oxford dictionary tends towards it being a strong term:

hate (verb)

1 Feel intense dislike for.

   1.2 Have a strong aversion to (something)

Hate (noun)

1 Intense dislike

   1.1 Denoting hostile actions motivated by intense dislike or prejudice

People seem to have intense dislike of fairly trivial things these days. There was an item last night on Sunday on road rage which showed extraordinary and violent reactions to relatively minor incidents on roads.

‘Hate speech’ has been a big talking point lately.

Do people really hate things that others say?

Or do they just hate that people say things they disagree with?

I suspect there’s a lot more tendency towards the latter.

John Roughan: Forceful speech is not always hate speech

Some things a parent says to a child go in very deep and stay for life. I can still hear my mother telling me, “You don’t hate people.”

I quickly forgot who it was I’d just announced I hated because her reply was more interesting. “You hate what they say or do, you don’t hate them. You don’t hate people.” Her tone was matter of fact not moralistic, and I worked out what she meant. It was simply a fact, there was goodness in everyone.

I agree to a large extent, although I thing hate could be justified for some people. Despicable actions can be hated, and despicable people can also be hated.

Hate is a heavy word and I rarely use it…

Same for me, but I see and hear the term used a lot.

…but it is getting quite an airing in this very important debate we are having since Phil Goff closed Auckland Council venues to Stefan Moyneux and Lauren Southern. This week supporters of the mayor have decided “free speech is not hate speech”, which, on the evidence of the banned pair’s internet posts, seems unfair.

Southern hates Islamic attitudes to women and for that reason she hates Islamic immigration. I think my mother would permit that, probably agree with it. I’m not sure what Molyneux hates…

I don’t know whether Southern hates Muslims, Islamic attitudes to women or Islamic immigration. But she certainly seems to stir up feelings of hate, both in support and in opposition to what she says,

I strongly disagree with some aspects of the Islamic religion, but that’s in general terms. I strongly disagree with aspects of the Christian religion, and the Jewish religion, and other religions.

I strongly disagree with some Islamic attitudes to women  – and also to some Kiwi attitudes to women as expressed online.

However I don’t hate Islamic immigration, nor do I fear it. I have no reason to do so. I don’t hate Muslim immigrants, and I certainly don’t hate Muslim people I pass on the streets of Dunedin (that happens quite often). I have no reason whatsoever to hate these people.

But some people do seem to hate Islam, hate Muslims, and appear to hate Muslim immigrants.

If Southern and Molyneux play on some people’s hates and fears, if they provoke expressions of hate, then are they guilty of hate speech?

Or is it just speech that they know will provoke feelings and expressions of hate? Are they trying to generate and propagate a frenzy of hate?

It is possible to stir up hate without using specifically hateful phrases in their speech.

Perhaps that’s what others hate about Southern and Molyneux.


Super greed

John Roughan has written an odd column, saying how nuts it is that people who are still working and have good incomes and are well off can get National Superannuation from age 65.

As a reporter at Parliament when the Lange Government introduced the surtax, I vividly recall Venn Young, a minister in the previous Government, explaining to me the only reason those objecting to the surtax had accepted a 66 percent top tax rate for so long was the promise of a pension at 65, paid regardless of other income, assets or private savings.

I remember being amazed, because they must have known all those years they were paying that tax rate the budget was in deficit. They weren’t paying for all the public services they were using at the time, let alone contributing to their retirement.

And I was furious, because in their delusion that generation had voted down a properly funded scheme 10 years earlier, which would have matured about now.

My generation has failed to fix that mistake though it has made the economy stronger and more demanding for the next generation.

That lack of political will to deal properly with superannuation over the last fifty years, probably because older people are a large and growing bloc of voters who tend to turn out more than  younger people, has been nuts.

This is not the first time I’ve tried to advance an alternative superannuation scheme in this column. It’s the best I can do.

I think the pension should not be available until we retire from regular paid work, and it should be available at any age after 60 to better cater for those in physically strenuous work.

That’s been suggested and rejected. United Future’s ‘flexi-super’, which allows you to choose when you start receiving Super anywhere between 60 and 70 (at a lower rate if you start younger) has been promoted by Peter Dunne and ignored by National.

In view of my generation’s enrichment by housing investments in recent years, at the expense of young working taxpayers with no equity who have to rent those investment homes, I think an asset test would be fair too.

That’s very contentious.

Only some of Roughan’s generation have been ‘enriched by housing investments’. And many of those who have  use trusts to protect their assets.

And people who have built up assets claim they have paid their ‘fair share of tax’ so deserve some of that back – they say it’s unfair to penalise them for earning well and using their money wisely.

While Roughan generalises with ‘my generation’ he doesn’t say whether he has enriched himself through property investment.

Our children are working in a tougher environment than we did, they’ve had to pay back tertiary education costs we never faced and now they face house prices fuelled in large part by my generation’s investments for retirement. They should not have to provide me with a pension until I really need it.

Fine, I hear you say, don’t take it. And you’re right. I’m trying to think what makes me any different from Donald Trump. It tax avoidance worse than taking money you don’t need from the public purse? Both are perfectly legal, if that is the only test you recognise.

But Roughan sounds annoyed that Governments and parties haven’t heeded his advise to change universal eligibility for Super.

However while receiving Super for someone his age is legal I don’t think it’s compulsory.

But since it’s not going to happen and all political parties are determined to give me a benefit I don’t need, what’s the point of refusing? That’s how I rationalise it, but really it’s just greed.

So he’s miffed that it hasn’t been reformed and uses that to make an excuse for being, as he describes it, greedy.

That doesn’t sound very rational to me.

Journalist or not?

I referenced this recently but it’s worth a look at this full post last week by Privacy Commissioner John Edwards:

When is a journalist not a journalist?

Last week’s decision of Clifford J in the Wellington High Court found that in the context of the Evidence Act, Nicky Hager was a journalist in relation to the publication of Dirty Politics, and was therefore entitled to assert privilege under s.68 of the Evidence Act 2006.

The High Court decision to classify Hager as a journalist echoes my office’s decision to do the same, in a complaint made against him by blogger Cameron Slater. This is important because the Privacy Act only applies to agencies – and the definition of “agency” excludes “ in relation to its news activities, any news medium.”  Journalists working in their capacity in the news media do not come under my office’s remit.

However, if we accorded Hager the news media protection, why did we flip-flop in another case and deny it to journalist John Roughan?

We don’t usually make public comment on cases that we have investigated. But apparent inconsistencies in approach have been picked up by parties and questioned. Those questions are legitimate, and important, so I’m happy to try and explain, by discussing elements of the complaints to our office that have been placed into the public domain by the parties.

There are three other relevant cases, all with familiar parties:

Dotcom v Attorney-General

The Crown (being sued by Kim Dotcom) asked the Court to force Kim Dotcom to produce documents held by a journalist (David Fisher), who he’d fully co-operated with when Mr Fisher wrote the biography The Secret Life of Kim Dotcom. This is a process called discovery. Usually, one party can ask the other party to give up all relevant information that is within their control. If a third party has information relevant to the proceedings, there is a special process by which they can be compelled to produce information for the proceedings as well. This is called “third party discovery”.

The Crown argued that because Kim Dotcom had a right under the Privacy Act to access personal information held by an agency, any such information was within his control, and therefore he should exercise his right to procure and produce it.

David Fisher was, they said, an agency under the Privacy Act, and Kim Dotcom could get all the information held by him. The Court considered whether David Fisher was an agency, given he was a journalist, working for a major NZ daily newspaper, who had regularly written news articles about Kim Dotcom.

Then Chief High Court Judge, Justice Winkelmann concluded that in David Fisher’s capacity as an author of a book, he was not “news media” as the definition refers to “articles”, not “books”. The result seemed to be that Mr Fisher would not be subject to the Privacy Act for an article published in the New Zealand Herald, but if a collection of such articles were published as a book, he would be.

Cameron Slater v Nicky Hager

Nicky Hager received a hard drive from an unnamed source with a significant amount of personal correspondence to and from blogger Cameron Slater. He then used that information as source material for his 2014 book Dirty Politics.

Mr Slater made a complaint to my office that the means by which Mr Hager obtained his private communications, and then subsequently published them, breached his privacy

The matter the High Court was addressing in Dotcom v Attorney-General was based on an individual’s right of access (that is, information privacy principle 6). The question we faced in the Slater v Hager complaint was about the means by which an investigative journalist collected and disseminated information (that is information privacy principles 1-4, and 11), so there were differences in the basic facts of the case.

We, and others found the High Court decision in Dotcom troublesome from a number of perspectives, not the least being that it effectively puts my office in the position of having to form a view on what information parties are entitled to have access to for court proceedings, but I have no power to order the production of the information. If the Privacy Act is to be the means for providing third party discovery there will be significant delays in cases before the courts as parties come through my office, and then on to the Human Rights Review Tribunal before going back to the court hearing their dispute.

When lawyers find a precedent case inconvenient, they seek to “distinguish” it from the facts of other cases it might otherwise apply to.

In determining whether Mr Hager was ‘news media’ for the purposes of the publication of a book, my senior investigating officer decided the facts of the complaint were quite different from those in the Dotcom case. He was obliged to take into account s.14 of the Privacy Act which requires that in performing functions under the Act, we have to have due regard for the protection of important human rights and social interests that compete with privacy.

And he had to think about s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA)  which provides “Wherever an enactment can be given a meaning that is consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights, that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning“.

Section 14 of the NZBORA provides for “freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”.

And so we made the decision that the writing and publication of Dirty Politics was the collection and dissemination of news, by a journalist, and that as such we had no jurisdiction to consider a complaint that its publication or research that lead to it, was a breach of the Privacy Act.

Roughan v Prime Minister John Key

So if Nicky Hager is a journalist when he writes a book, why isn’t John Roughan when he does?

Mr Roughan wrote a book about Prime Minister John Key.  Lawyers for Bradley Ambrose, the cameraman suing Mr Key for defamation as a result of the “teapot tapes” events asked the Prime Minister for discovery, including material held by his biographer John Roughan. They were asking him to exercise his right under the Privacy Act to access personal information about him, so it could be produced to the Court. Lawyers for the Prime Minister obliged and made the request of Mr Roughan, who refused on the basis that he was a journalist.

Here, we had a case that was “on all fours” with the earlier decision of Justice Winkelmann. A journalist working for New Zealand Herald writes a book about a well known individual who is a party to legal proceedings. I made the decision that as a statutory officer faced with a case with identical facts to those directly ruled on by a senior judicial officer, I was bound by that precedent. There was simply no “wiggle room”.

Privacy, freedom of press and the courts

A freely functioning press is vital to a healthy democracy. Press freedom, and freedom of expression are not absolute values, and are like other rights, subject to limitations. That’s why we have defamation laws, laws against incitement, and limits to protect  privacy.

This is also why Nicky Hager ultimately succeeded in his judicial review of a warrant to search his property for evidence that might identify the source of the information Hager used for his book Dirty Politics.

I agree with critics that consistency in the law and its application is an important value. With the Government committed to reform of the Privacy Act, it could be timely to take the opportunity to clarify the position of journalists, privacy, discovery and the Courts.

  • Privacy Commissioner John Edwards

Journalist protection doesn’t apply to books

The Privacy Commissioner has told New Zealand Herald columnist John Roughan that journalist protection of sources doesn’t apply to books.

The Herald reports in: Key biographer forced to release tapes

Roughan has been forced to release recordings of his conversations with Prime Minister John Key as part of a court case relating to the “teapot tapes”.

Roughan had refused to surrender transcripts and recordings used for his biography John Key, Portrait of a Prime Minister. He was asked for the documents a year ago under the discovery process for a defamation case being taken against Mr Key by freelance photographer Bradley Ambrose.

The Privacy Commission told the columnist last week that his book did not meet the criteria for the Privacy Act exemption which allowed journalists to protect their sources.

Roughan is the third journalist to be captured by a High Court ruling last year which said a reporter’s research for a book did not qualify for protection under privacy rules.

This has obvious implications with Nicky Hager and his ‘Dirty Politics’ book.

After Roughan refused to release his documents, the case was referred to the Privacy Commissioner.

The commissioner’s office told Roughan last week that it was bound by a previous judicial ruling by then-Chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann on Kim Dotcom’s civil case against New Zealand’s police and spying agencies.

Justice Winkelmann ruled that the privacy exemption for news media related specifically to “articles and programmes” and did not extend to books.

Her ruling was made after Herald journalist David Fisher refused to give up emails and interviews used to write the book The Secret Life of Dotcom.

Media law expert Ursula Cheer, from the University of Canterbury, said yesterday that it was a surprise to many people when Justice Winkelmann interpreted the Privacy Act in such a literal way.

“It did look as though it would create problems and obviously it is. If this is happening with more journalists then they’re going to be, in theory, chilled from writing books.”

I’m not sure why journalists will be “chilled from writing books”. It just puts them on the same basis as any other book author. I don’t see why they should carry over their special (and important) “articles and programmes” journalism privileges into book authorship.

John Roughan has also written about this in No protection in court for journalism in books.

In September the commissioner’s office told me to hand over the material, either to the lawyers or to the commissioner’s investigations team who would decide whether it could be withheld. I wrote back, making an argument that I felt sure would have to succeed because it was precisely an argument that had already succeeded for none other than Nicky Hager.

Last year Cameron Slater took a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner to see if the Winkelman ruling would allow him to see the personal information stolen from his computer and used by Hager in Dirty Politics. Hager’s lawyer, Steven Price, composed a cogent legal argument that Hager was a “news medium” and his book came under the definition of “news activity”.

I stole his arguments but they didn’t work for me. The commissioner’s office has decided it is bound by Winkelman and obliged to consider my refusal an interference with privacy under section 66 of the Act.

Roughan makes the claim that because he is a journalist if he writes a book it is “journalism in books”.

If an author writes a news article can they submit that for the Man Booker Prize?

A dictionary definition:

Journalist: a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television.

From the American Press Institute: What is journalism?

Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities.

Journalism can be distinguished from other activities and products by certain identifiable characteristics and practices. These elements not only separate journalism from other forms of communication, they are what make it indispensable to democratic societies.

What makes journalism different than other forms of communication?

The world, and especially the online world, is awash in communication.

The vast majority of this communication, however, is not news and especially not journalism. Almost 70 percent of email traffic is spam, according to web security company Symantec. In 2012, there were an average of 175 million tweets each day. But almost all – 99% — consisted of “pointless babble,” according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

While journalism occupies a much smaller space than the talk, entertainment, opinion, assertion, advertising and propaganda that dominate the media universe, it is nevertheless perceived as being more valuable than most of the “stuff out there.”

That value flows from its purpose, to provide people with verified information they can use to make better decisions, and its practices, the most important of which is a systematic process – a discipline of verification – that journalists use to find not just the facts, but also the “truth about the facts.”

A significant criticism of Hager’s ‘Dirty Politics’ was that he deliberately did not verify his claims with people he was making claims about.

What is the purpose of journalism?

“The purpose of journalism,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism, “is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.” Rather, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”

News is that part of communication that keeps us informed of the changing events, issues, and characters in the world outside. Though it may be interesting or even entertaining, the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed.

The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

If something is newsworthy it should be disseminated as news.

news: newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events

I think that the time it takes to write and publish a book makes it hard to claim it is publishing “newly received” information.

In the New Zealand Press Council Statement of Principles they don’t mention ‘book’ once.

The Press Council’s scope applies to published material in newspapers, magazines and their websites, including audio and video streams, as well as to digital sites with news content, or blogs characterised by their new commentary.

If a journalist wants journalist protection then they should publish it as news (I don’t know how much verification goes on these days but that’s another story).

And if they want to write a book it should be on the same basis as any other author writing a book, not with a carry over of their journalist privileges.

What is ‘sanctity of life’?

John Roughan supoprts the ‘sanctity of life’ without knowing what it is. In NZ Herald:

Here’s hoping the High Court can robustly defend the sanctity of life, writes John Roughan.

I’d have been very quiet, assuming most of those around me were friends and supporters of the 42-year-old woman with an inoperable brain tumour. When her battery of lawyers argued that her wish ought to be a matter between Lecretia and her doctor and that it was nobody else’s business, I’d have been asking myself, why do I care? Why am I here?

All I know is that I do not want her to take her own life, with or without assistance, and nor does the law but I don’t know why.

Ms Seales has a general practitioner who is prepared to kill her when she asks. Mr Curran suggested it could be done by changing a saline solution to a lethal substance. I know this offends me. I just need better minds to tell me why.

So Roughan wants to make a decision on someone else’s life but doesn’t know why.

I’d have come back the next day hoping to hear the Solicitor General, Mike Heron QC, provide a profound answer.

Reports from the court quote him saying the sanctity of life was a fundamental principle of the common law. “The principle recognises that human life is a basic, intrinsic good.” The law was designed also to protect the vulnerable.

“The right not to be killed is enjoyed regardless of inability or disability.”

But the Seals case is not about a right not to be killed. It’s about a claimed right to choose a less awful, more dignified way to die.

What is ‘sanctity of life’?

A The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity David P. Gushee writes:

The “sanctity of life” is a phrase that in recent decades became commonplace in the moral and political debates concerning a wide range of bioethical issues: abortion, embryo research, cloning, genetic engineering, euthanasia, and others. Generally it is used by those of us who oppose technologies or practices that we believe violate the intrinsic value of human life. Some of us who use the term employ it more broadly to denote an ethical approach concerned not just with a handful of bioethical issues but the entire range of moral problems that human beings face, from abortion to poverty, from war to the death penalty, from child abuse to the environment.

I am concerned that for many Christians “the sanctity of life” is little more than a culture wars slogan rather than the product of serious reflection. As a slogan it then evokes equally unthinking resistance from those who react negatively to anything that reminds them of (conservative) Christianity. And despite the thousands of uses of the term “sanctity of life” that can be found in any Google search, the phrase actually seems to be fading a bit from our consciousness. It feels a bit musty, a relic of the 1980s. This is most unfortunate.

From Wikipedia:

The phrase sanctity of life refers to the idea that human life is sacred and holy, argued mainly by the pro-life side in political and moral debates over such controversial issues as abortion, contraception, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and the “right to die” in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries. (Comparable phrases are used in other languages.) Although the phrase was used primarily in the 19th century in Protestant discourse, after World War II the phrase has been appropriated for Roman Catholic moral theology and, following Roe v. Wade,evangelical moral rhetoric.[1]

In Western thought, sanctity of life is usually applied solely to the human species (anthropocentrism, sometimes called dominionism).

This religious connection isn’t surprising considering the definition of ‘sanctity’.

the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly.

1350-1400; < Latin sānctitās holiness, equivalent to sānct- (see Sanctus ) + -itās -ity; replacing Middle English sauntite < Anglo-French < Latin

So it’s based on religion and not on the ‘laws’ (realities) of nature.

Roughan wrote:

Reports from the court quote him saying the sanctity of life was a fundamental principle of the common law.

Is it? There’s been the occasional war in history that have ignored any principle of ‘sanctity of life’.

Laws in many countries allow executions. Laws in New Zealand allowed for executions until 1989, that’s only 26 years ago. So the sanctity of life was a hardly a fundamental principle of the common law. Roughan and Solicitor General, Mike Heron QC were alive in 1989.

If sanctity of life is just a religious concept then why don’t those who believe in it comply with it, and why can’t those who don’t choose when and how they die if the want to?

What’s the big deal if someone chooses to die, whether by euthanasia or by suicide?

Sure, suicide in particular can be very sad for those close to the person who has died. But so can many other ways of dying.

But ultimately the ‘right to life’ is at best only temporary for all of us. In the whole scheme of things if some people choose to end their lives a few weeks, months or even years earlier than they might otherwise survive to then so what?

Claiming there’s some inviolable ‘sanctity of life’ could be little more than sanctimonious imposition of a narrow and recent belief system.