Euthanasia referendum: Supporter says End of Life Choice Act will 'increase life, not shorten it'

A supporter of making euthanasia legal has claimed it would "increase life, not shorten it" by inspiring those preparing to meet their maker to go on living instead. 

While an opponent has claimed people in Victoria, Australia - hit hard by COVID-19 - have been rushing to end their own lives before the virus does. 

In two-and-a-half weeks' time, voters will be asked whether they support the End of Life Choice Act becoming law - it's already been passed by Parliament, and now just needs the approval of the public. Polls suggest it will pass. 

Opponents are making a last-ditch effort to change Kiwis' minds however. Last weekend, palliative care doctor Sinead Donnelly told Newshub Nation it is a "dangerous law", people will be coerced into dying and terminal prognoses are often wrong. 

"Prognostication is an estimate... we get it wrong most of the time. Even within a few days of death. Families often ask 'how long have they got to live?' We generally say we're not sure, we don't know... It's not as if we plug in the patients details into a computer and out pops a date of death."

Appearing on The AM Show on Thursday, another palliative care expert - Aileen Collier, head of the Palliative Care Nurses Association - made largely the same arguments against voting 'yes'. But said Victoria's new assisted dying law was causing "a great deal of distress" amongst nurses, coming into place shortly before the coronavirus arrived.

"I know that because of COVID-19 older people in Victoria are questioning whether they should make use of the Act in Victoria. What I know is, is this Act is highly unsafe. It doesn't have safeguards." 

The Sydney Morning Herald in May reported a surge in applications for assisted dying, but doctors the paper spoke to said they all came from people with terminal illnesses.

"These are patients who were always going to go down that path anyway. Coronavirus has spurred them to take steps earlier to be organised and prepared," said Melbourne oncologist Cameron McLaren.

Mary Panko and Aileen Collier on The AM Show.
Mary Panko and Aileen Collier on The AM Show. Photo credit: The AM Show

End of Life Choice Society president Mary Panko, appearing on The AM Show with Collier, said Victoria's law - which came into force last year - has been a "terrific success" with no signs of the kinds of problems opponents predicted. Instead, it's given dying people "freedom of choice" over how their lives end.

"They're living some sort of existence which is full of suffering, the family is watching them, they hate to see the family carrying those memories away. We think this is the most safe, rigorous Bill in the world, and just to make a point here, something like 200 million people around the world live in those jurisdictions and the sky hasn't fallen."

Patients have to have a terminal condition likely to end their lives within six months to be eligible under New Zealand's proposed law. While opponents like Collier say doctors often get it wrong, particularly with treatments for conditions like cancer getting better all the time, Panko said knowing death can come without suffering might actually help more people pull through. 

"You have six months after being assessed to make that decision. If somebody tells you that you are able to access assisted dying, that whole burden of fear of what might happen to you comes off your shoulders and you go on living. This will increase life, not shorten it." 

Last weekend's Newshub Nation debate between Dr Donnelly and the MP behind the Act, David Seymour, became heated when Seymour accused his opponent of being dishonest about her views.

"I think that it would be a lot more respectable if instead of making up these kinds of what I call 'false objections' if Dr Donnelly came here and said 'this choice is against my religion, and I don't want other people to be able to make that choice'. It would be a lot more respectable if she would say that." 

Dr Donnelly said it was a "disgraceful" thing to say. 

The AM Show's debate came close to replicating that moment, when Panko suggested opponents didn't have problems with the End of Life Choice Act in particular.

"The fundamental part here that people need to recognise is that people say 'we're opposed to this law because it's not safe, this Act' - they are actually opposed to the whole concept. People ought to come clear that it's a moral or duty of religion - that's why they're saying it."