ACT leader David Seymour. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

PoliticsApril 8, 2019

Why we should be sceptical of David Seymour’s euthanasia bill

ACT leader David Seymour. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

This week, Alex Penk found himself agreeing with David Seymour when he said that there’s been “a constant misinformation campaign” about the End of Life Choice Bill. It’s just that the chief culprit was Seymour himself, he argues. 

MPs and the public should be very sceptical about what they’re hearing from David Seymour, who is going to great lengths to try and save the Bill he drafted. He’s even taken the highly unusual step of writing a 73-page report on the Bill and suggesting significant changes to try and win support for it. For example, having a referendum on the Bill. There’s some unhelpful confusion about the effect of these suggestions, which have no formal status and are no more than ideas which parliament may accept or reject — if they ever do make it before the House.

Before releasing this lengthy list of alterations, Seymour consistently claimed that the Bill contained more than enough rigorous safeguards. But the latest data from the US state of Oregon casts doubt on whether real safeguards are possible. 

In Oregon, terminally ill patients only qualify for assisted suicide if they’re given six months to live — also one of the qualifying conditions in the Bill — but patients often outlive this prognosis. Others have only fleeting relationships with the doctors who prescribed their lethal medication, even as short as one week and averaging 10 weeks overall. This is hardly enough time for a doctor to get to know a patient and make a judgment about, say, whether they’re depressed in a way that affects their decision-making ability. The Bill’s supporters often paint a rosy picture of a peaceful death, but Oregon’s data reveals that some patients take hours to die and a few suffer complications, like regurgitating medication.

Seymour has also said that the law in Oregon is “completely unchanged,” and while this is true now, it may not be for much longer. Currently, there are two bills before the Oregon legislature that would expand eligibility. One would remove the limitation that death must be likely within six months and instead allow assisted suicide for a much wider category of patients who have a “disease that will… produce or substantially contribute to a patient’s death.” The other bill would extend eligibility for assisted suicide to patients with “a degenerative condition” that will cause death.

Of course, those bills may not pass, but Oregon is often held up as the gold standard of unchanging assisted suicide laws to counter concerns about expansion, so current attempts to widen it illustrate the inevitable pressure that follows legalisation.

In fact, laws like these often expand their scope, as in Belgium which made children eligible for euthanasia in 2014, and in Canada where there’s a live debate about extending euthanasia and assisted suicide to “mature minors.” This isn’t a fringe idea: there’s a Government-initiated report on the possibility, and a Toronto children’s hospital has already drawn up its policy such that it could be extended to under 18s. This kind of expansion reveals that the underlying logic of euthanasia and assisted suicide – that some lives are not worth living – has no natural limits.

Much more could be said about the facts and figures, but we also need to consider how the issue is being framed. Since it was revealed that over 90% of submissions opposed the Bill, Seymour has been pointing to opinion poll results to claim majority support for the Bill. He’s right about the polling numbers, but if you’ve ever been on the end of a polling company’s call, you’ll know how much of a stretch his argument is. You’re randomly chosen and put on the spot to give an instant opinion on a subject you have no expertise in, answering questions that have been carefully framed to shape your responses, which are then enlisted by a politician with an agenda. Elevating these off the cuff, “in theory” responses as somehow more legitimate than written submissions on an actual piece of legislation requires a fair amount of what’s politely called “motivated reasoning.”

That kind of reasoning shouldn’t be a surprise. Seymour often tries to dismiss people raising concerns about the Bill by claiming we’re trying to impose our morality on others. This is ironic as the Bill attempts to impose ACT’s neoliberal ideology on us all – an unrealistic theory that elevates free choice at the expense of solidarity, where autonomous individuals make independent decisions that have no wider social consequences. In the real world, families can be complicated, people can be vulnerable and subject to pressure, and law changes work themselves out in a complex web of social relationships where consequences are often unforeseen and unintended.

I can agree with Seymour on two more things though. First, he asks us to look at the evidence from countries that have these laws, which is absolutely the right approach. It’s just that the evidence casts substantial doubt on the picture that he’s painting. Second, he’s right to focus on the importance of compassion for suffering patients. We must do our best for everyone grappling with the end of life, especially by improving access to palliative care. But we don’t do anyone any favours with half-truths.

Alex Penk is CEO of the Maxim Institute

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