MPs should examine facts on euthanasia, rather than crystal balls

By January 10, 2019 Recent News

Stuff 10 January 2019
Family First Comment: Excellent analysis of the euthanasia issue…
“Vulnerable people are at an unacceptable risk of wrongful death under laws such as these.”

OPINION“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” said the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr. Maryan Street should have heeded this tongue-in-cheek warning when she forecast that the End of Life Choice Bill would become law this year. Prediction is always hard, but it’s near impossible when it’s based on the kind of partial information found in her article.

The stakes are high with this bill, which would legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide, and the public and the MPs who will be voting on it need much better information than Street provided. So let’s look at some of the key issues that MPs might consider.

First, they’re likely to look overseas and see that laws like these are rejected more often than they pass, because most lawmakers look at the evidence and decide these practices are just too risky. Street tells us that Victoria passed an assisted dying law in 2017, but not that similar laws were rejected by South Australia in 2016, Tasmania in 2017, New South Wales in 2017, and the Northern Territories in 2018.

Second, MPs will probably look at the “Sponsor’s Report” on the bill, by ACT leader David Seymour. He suggests limiting the bill to cover terminal illness only, and making it conditional on a public referendum. But it is wrong and misleading to say, as Street does, that his report is “making some critical amendments”, as though these proposals have been accepted. They are simply Seymour’s ideas; only Parliament can change the bill now.

Third, MPs will be looking at how similar laws have worked overseas. For example, in Oregon, which legalised assisted suicide for terminal illness, 55 per cent of patients accessing assisted suicide said one of their reasons was fear “of being a burden on family, friends and caregivers”. This number has been rising steadily over the years, and it should be a concern for a law that is supposed to be based on free choice.

This kind of law can also expand. In Belgium, euthanasia was originally limited to adults, but was extended to children in 2014, although with some limitations. The numbers accessing assisted suicide have also grown steadily in places such as Washington state, with 196 deaths in 2017 compared with 64 in 2009. Street herself notes how disappointed she will be if “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions are no longer eligible for euthanasia and assisted suicide, and if a limited version of the bill is passed it would be surprising if pro-euthanasia campaigners didn’t try to expand the eligibility criteria in future.

There’s much more detail about the evidence, and analysis of the bill, in our submission; in summary, it shows that vulnerable people are at an unacceptable risk of wrongful death under laws such as these.

Lastly, MPs will probably ask themselves what voters think, and realise there is significant public opposition to the bill. While Street mentions that more than 35,000 people made written submissions on the bill, she doesn’t mention reports suggesting that the vast majority of submitters opposed the bill; unofficial estimates put it as high as 90 per cent.

While opinion polls consistently find that a majority of the public supports euthanasia and assisted suicide, it’s odd not to mention submitters’ opposition, especially as submitters have specifically considered this bill and have probably thought about the issue more deeply than someone put on the spot by a polling company’s random call.

It’s only human for our predictions to be coloured by our desires and, as president of the End-of-Life Choice Society (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), it’s perhaps not surprising that Street’s crystal ball appears to have given her the answer she wanted. But legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide is one of the most consequential issues that Parliament will consider this year, and a bit less crystal ball-gazing and a bit more attention to the facts would do us all a favour.

* Alex Penk is chief executive of the Maxim Institute, an independent research and policy think tank.

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