Euthanasia referendum divides Pacific community along generational lines

11:34 am on 9 October 2020

A generational divide, views on Christianity and access to trusted information are all factors influencing how members of the Pacific community will vote in the End of Life referendum.

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Views on Christianity and a generational divide are influencing how members of the Pacific community will vote in the referendum. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

It's a referendum that is challenging New Zealand's Pacific community to think hard about its implementation and implications.

For many Pasifika people the End of Life referendum goes to the heart of views on faith and family but also tests the ability to access trusted information.

With nearly 80 percent of Pasifika listing a religious affiliation in the 2013 census compared with 55 percent among the general population, the community's strong Christian convictions mean voting 'yes' goes against fundamental cultural and religious tenets.

For Atela Asi, who has been nursing here since arriving from Tonga in 2001, the bill goes against all her training.

"I don't believe in having their life taken. Especially, from my point of view, we were never taught to kill people, we were taught to save people so it's not up to anyone to take anyone's life."

Frances Oakes nee Fakasiieiki also moved from Tonga but in 1974 on a scholarship to study at Waitaki Girls' High School. Now the psychiatric nurse and grandmother calls Oamaru home and she has noted a lot of change since she arrived.

"I know there is a big difference between the older generation, the island born versus New Zealand born. My generation versus my children in what they believe in as well."

Member of Oamaru's Tongan community, Frances Oakes.

Frances Oakes nee Fakasiieiki Photo: Dominic Godfrey / RNZ Pacific

Among New Zealand's Pacific population, two out of three are now born here and it is increasing.

Oakes said more government consultation was needed to ensure the community makes well informed decisions on the referendum.

"We know, that because the government has already passed the End of Life Choice one, and that if people vote 'yes' then that is going to go ahead but that is something that our Pacific people need to actually know about, and go and vote."

If more than half the vote is 'yes' the End of Life Choice bill will become legislation.

Pasifika youth advocate Melissa Lama said elders in the community are concerned how younger Pasifika will vote, but she argues social media savvy youth are better informed.

Dunedin Pasifika advocate, Melissa Lama.

Melissa Lama Photo: Supplied

"As young people we know what we want and that if we do decide to be independent in that direction it's not necessarily us saying that we don't want you to advise us," she added.

"It's just, you know, we're going to take your wisdom and whatever you offer us but it's us saying this is how we see it."

The median age for Pacific people in the 2013 census was 22 years, compared with 38 for the total population.

Dunedin community advocate Stacey Kokaua is also concerned that information about the End of Life Choice referendum has not been made readily available for Pasifika people.

"As a Pacific person who has a tertiary education, I am able to navigate that information relatively easily but I know myself I don't feel I have enough grasp particularly on the End of Life referendum to really vote confidently."

Information on the referendum website is available in Samoan and Tongan but not her mother tongue Cook Island Māori or other realm country languages Niuean or Tokelauan.

Kokaua added that many Pacific people are already vulnerable and disadvantaged in the health system and she said she fears the bill could make it worse.

"I am not against the idea per se but I am just not confident that it is going to be a law that keeps our people safe."

President of UOPISA Joshuaa Alefosio-Pei

Joshuaa Alefosio-Pei raised his concerns about the referendum with academics. Photo: Supplied / Joshuaa Alefosio-Pei

The University of Otago Pacific Islands Students' Association vice-president, Joshuaa Alefosio-Pei, has raised his concerns with academics.

"And I asked them, how do we know that this won't be weaponised against ethnic minorities or those who happen to be living in poverty and their response was that overseas [examples] show that it's not usually within the ethnic minorities that take up this choice."

He said he is not convinced by their response.

The president of Tauira Pasifika, the national Pacific tertiary student body, Ali Leota said older members of the community were mostly against the bill.

Ali Leota

Tauira Pasifika president Ali Leota says older members of the community are mostly against the bill. Photo: supplied

"But when I talked to some of my friends who are my age and younger, they were supportive of this so, I'm like in the middle," he observed.

"But after doing a bit of my own research and talking to other people, and as a health student as well, it's weighed heavily on me and I've realised that I don't want to live in a world where it's okay to end someone's life."

The outcome of the End of Life referendum is binding, and if voted in, will come into force in October 2021.

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  • How much do New Zealanders know about euthanasia law details?
  • End of Life Choice Act: Who is eligible, who makes the decisions?