Last weekend, the color magazine of Australian weekend featured a front page feature, “Final wishWhich deals with assisted dying laws sweeping the country.
Author Kathy Marks has sensitively interviewed a number of people who have taken advantage of these new laws. She also interviewed long-time relatives and well-known advocates of euthanasia such as Dr Philip Nitschke and Rodney Syme.
Unsurprisingly, they think the limits on the new laws are too restrictive and would like state aid in voluntary death to be made available to all those facing existential suffering who want to put an end to it.
Kathy Marks also interviewed me at some length. She summarized my arguments precisely and concisely as follows:
âFrank Brennan, the Jesuit priest and professor of law, is concerned that the right to conscientious objection – which also applies to healthcare facilities – will be watered down over time. He also fears that âeuthanasia will become a shortcutâ in remote areas where palliative care is poor. âFor centuries, ‘Don’t hurt or kill’ was a clear line, and people knew what it meant,â he says. âAs a society we have now moved away from that, and there is no other line with the same clarity or depth.â
Victorian Minister Jill Hennessy admits that “wherever you make a law, you draw a line, and people are going to fall on either side.” As expected, some of those who oppose my arguments play the man with the desk collar rather than the ball.
Here are some comments posted on Australian weekend website in response to the article:
- “It is good that politicians have stopped being intimidated by religious fundamentalists.”
- “ No one should be allowed to use a religious argument on this issue other than to plead not to use VAD’s facilities (Theft, they almost certainly can’t).
The argument of some that they speak of an “ethical” position, and not of their religious beliefs, is almost always wrong. The so-called ethical position almost always boils down to the prohibition of their respective religion.
Our world is a very different place than it was 50 years ago. In 1970 we were a country of 12.5 million people with a life expectancy of 71.2 years. Today we are a country of 26 million people with a life expectancy of 83.5 years.
If you have any doubts that the country is facing a crisis in the provision of palliative care, just consider some of the findings of the recent Royal Commission on the Quality and Safety of Care for the Elderly. .
The number of Australians aged 85 and over will grow from half a million in 2018 (2.0% of the Australian population) to over 1.5 million by 2058 (3.7% of the population) . Two years ago, there were 4.2 people of working age (15â64) for every Australian aged 65 or over. By 2058, that number will have risen to 3.1.
The Royal Commission reported that “residential care for the elderly tends to be underqualified and under-trained in palliative care, and there is a lack of qualified personnel to adequately manage palliative care.” The commission recommended that “dementia and high-quality palliative care be considered the core business of providers of care for the elderly.”
At the moment, they are not. And in many remote and regional parts of Australia, they are non-existent.
When Victoria’s new law came into effect Premier Dan Andrews said: “We expect in the first 12 months, based on experience abroad, about ten people who will have access to voluntary assistance in dying.”
In fact, 224 people chose voluntary assisted dying under the new laws during their first 18 months of operation. And another 100 people had the deadly drugs delivered to them but decided not to use them.
You don’t have to be a religious fundamentalist to urge caution, as these new laws are being made in other Australian states with fewer and fewer restrictions, reducing the imperative for governments and parliaments. to provide adequate resources for good palliative care to an aging population.
My concern is not so much about competent and well-supported people like those interviewed in the History of Colors. Our eye and concern for the law must still not be for those who are invulnerable but for the vulnerable. As Lord Sumption once presented him to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom:
âThere is no complete solution to the problem of protecting vulnerable people from overuse of suicide. . . The real question about all of these possibilities is what risk to the vulnerable are we willing to accept in this area in order to facilitate the suicide of the invulnerable. . . There is an important element of social policy and moral value judgment involved. The relative importance of the right to commit suicide and the right of vulnerable persons to be protected from overt or covert pressure to commit suicide is inevitably sensitive to the most fundamental collective moral and social values ââof a state.
I do not apologize for raising these questions even though I am a priest.
I have all my sympathy for the people who want to avail themselves of state authorized aid to end their lives in situations of acute suffering. But I am also deeply concerned about those who are neglected in these times of rapid legal change. In this time between the bookends, when the Lord directs us to go out into the world, I take courage in the observation of St John Henry Newman in his book on The Arians of the fourth century. Writing in Oxford in 1833, Newman asserted:
Indeed, the Church was designed for the express purpose of interfering or (as non-religious men will say) interfering in the world. It is the obvious duty of its members, not only to associate internally, but also to develop this internal union in an external war with the spirit of evil, whether in the courts of kings or among the mixed multitude â .
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating once called me “the priest who mingles“. I think we Catholics should interfere more, not less. Our arguments, like those of others who differ from us, should be given careful consideration.
We have nothing to fear from civic discourse and public deliberation. Let us always ask ourselves how any change in law or public policy will affect the most vulnerable and not just how it will strengthen the freedom of the invulnerable. Letâs not be the only ones staring lazily at the sky.
This article is based on a homily delivered by the author on May 16.