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Let the dying taste freedom

24 May 2015 365 views 6 Comments

As elsewhere in the West, the churches here have long been fighting a rearguard action to maintain their dominance and hegemony. But this is no easy task with an ever-growing list of clerical retreats and regroupings in response to an increasingly secular but nonetheless conservative Australia.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is making clear that the right of churches to operate above the secular law is no longer acceptable.

For decades, abortion law reform has liberated women from backstreet abortionists. Contraception and sex education are now widely available. Homosexuality has been decriminalised. We are getting closer and closer to affording full recognition to same-sex marriage , with the ALP about to vote on whether this is an issue of discrimination rather than a matter of conscience. Civil celebrant marriage is now almost as common as church weddings and baptisms are in rapid decline. Divorce and marriage breakdown are no longer a cause for social ostracism , with even the British royal family valuably modelling change. All of these freedoms have already occurred, yet the sky has not fallen down!

The new Siegfried Line for the churches is death. Their troops are dug in at the nation’s hospices, cemeteries and crematoria. Their mantra is that the chapel and the blessing open death’s door to an eternal afterlife and that family and friends can draw comfort from the belief that their loved one is heaven-bound. While many Christians may still believe this to be true, the churches continue to demand that such comfort comes at a hefty price.

Sadly, these days the dying pay the highest price. This is because the still powerful churches advocate and indeed demand a militant “NO” to voluntary euthanasia , regardless of the needless suffering inflicted on the dying.

The dying are denied the choice of a peaceful, respectful and pain-free passage through death’s door because the churches hold that such killing is wrong. Not all killing is opposed, of course, just that of assisting the dying who choose voluntary euthanasia for themselves. No hospice care for them , unless they give up their wish to die peacefully when they rationally decide that they have suffered enough.

The position of the churches is adamant. God doesn’t like it. Moreover, voluntary euthanasia would be the thin end of the wedge.

The thin end of the wedge to what?

Most likely, the churches fear that, because a vast majority of our population support voluntary euthanasia, this might be translated into a great many Australians opting for voluntary euthanasia when they decide their time to cease suffering has come.

But what would be wrong with citizens choosing how to live their lives right up to death? Most people are free to question the church’s teaching, to choose with whom we have sex, to use a condom or not, or to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But despite the fact that Newspoll found in 2012 that 77 per cent of Catholics supported law reform to allow medically assisted dying for the terminally ill, the Catholic Church tells its adherents that they are not allowed to have a choice. Worse, they argue that no one, regardless of their faith, should have that choice.

The institutional churches may be offended by our hard-won sexual and other freedoms. But so what? True believers are still free to follow church law, as the rest of us are free not to.

Voluntary euthanasia will not be problem-free, but as grown-ups we know this and have the ability to craft laws with sufficient checks and balances to minimise any potential abuse of medically assisted dying. As with heterosexual and homosexual freedoms, Australians understand that freedoms come with individual and community responsibilities.

As abortion law reform did in some maternity hospitals, voluntary euthanasia may see some church groups withdraw their engagement with hospice care that runs counter to their core beliefs. But, most likely, there will be compromise and accommodation with different viewpoints. Enacting voluntary euthanasia laws that do not require those healthcare staff who ethically object to assist in the practice of voluntary euthanasia would be a great help.

This legislated right of objection should more than satisfy the Australian Medical Association and at the same time pull them back from trespassing on the domain of their clerical compadres.

Yes, some churches may still refuse to bless or to bury people who have chosen an assisted death. This is their right and people who opt for voluntary euthanasia will no doubt consider this as they exercise their right to choose.

The reality is that, as they always have done in changing times, the churches will survive the introduction of voluntary euthanasia laws, just as they are surviving the revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The churches are far stronger than they sometimes seem to believe. And, when all is said and done, they will continue to tell us that they go forwards , with God on their side.

What is needed now is for all political parties to extend freedom to the dying. But just allowing a conscience vote on voluntary euthanasia is not enough. This is because, historically, our parliamentarians do not vote according to their conscience.

Witness that, in recent years, not a single Liberal or National Party MP voted for voluntary euthanasia bills in Tasmania or NSW. Either they really are unrepresentative swill or something other than conscience (try political self-interest) determined their vote.

A large majority of voters from all parties and faith groups, as well as from the growing band of atheists and agnostics, want the freedom to decide for themselves.

We are sick to death of politicians telling us how we should die.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Canberra Times, May 23, 2015


  • Fiona Patten, Dr Peter Smith, Helen FitzGerald & Sophia Yates said:

    Too much power

    Ross Fitzgerald’s argument for dying with dignity (“Let the dying taste freedom”, Times2, May 24, p1) is timely.There has been a shift in attitude around the country in the past couple of months. After pressure from the Sex Party and the Greens and a conscience vote by the opposition, the Victorian Labor government has allowed the issue to be debated in a parliamentary committee, where all sides of the debate will be open to the public.

    Fitzgerald is right to point out the hypocrisy of the churches in challenging voluntary euthanasia, while being exposed for human suffering over child sex abuse. The churches’ responses to gay marriage, abortion, voluntary euthanasia and even drug law reform are all connected at a certain point.

    The public has moved on in all of these moral debates, but the churches have not. The problem is that they still hold too much power in political circles and punch well above their weight in political debates. Perhaps the ultimate parliamentary inquiry should revolve around why this is still happening.

    Fiona Patten, MLC, Victorian Parliament

    Euthanasia support

    Australians have grown up, but quaint and well-intentioned nannies, like Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten, have yet to grasp this. As the 2010 Auspoll/Australian Academy of Science survey found, 79 per cent of us have abandoned Adam and Eve and support evolution.

    Tony and Bill might also be surprised to know that for decades there has been majority public support for voluntary euthanasia, with 2014 results showing 71 per cent of Coalition voters and 79 per cent of Labor Party voters wanted it legalised.

    Ross Fitzgerald (“Let the dying taste freedom”, Times2, May 24, p1) hit the nail on the head: “We are sick to death of politicians telling us how we should die.”

    Dr Peter Smith, Oaklands, NSW

    Ross Fitzgerald’s article is persuasive and comprehensive. A key point is that anyone, including medical and hospital staff, who is against voluntary euthanasia should have the choice to remain uninvolved and to die as they choose. However, the same freedom must be given to those who want assisted dying at the time of their choice. The churches and politicians have no right to deny them that freedom.

    Helen FitzGerald, Surry Hills, NSW

    Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin stepped up to the plate with his response to the result of the Irish referendum on gay marriage: “It is time to harness the energy that has been unleashed in favour of equality for all.”

    We can only hope that Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten will see the light and step aside so that we can claim for ourselves the freedom to choose how we live and, as Ross Fitzgerald (“Let the dying taste freedom”, Times2, May 24, p1) so convincingly argues, how we die.

    Sophia Yates, Parkville, Vic

    Letters to the Editor, The Canberra Times, 27 May 2015.

  • Bryan Furnass & Bruce A. Peterson (author) said:

    Voltaire declared ‘‘Although I disapprove of people committing suicide, I will fight to the death for their right to do so’’. More recently, Ross Fitzgerald champions the right to die by adults of sound mind who find life intolerable (Let the dying taste freedom, Times2, May 26, p1).
    Something can be learned from quotes by two wise physicians of a century ago, before modern medical interventions were available. First, paraphrasing Hippocrates: ‘‘Thou shall not kill, but neither strive officiously to keep alive’’. Second, considering the whole patient as well as his/ her disease: ‘‘The essence of patient care is caring for the patient’’, requiring discussion rather than denial of terminal illness, and emphasising quality rather than quantity of life, as practised by palliative care professionals.
    Completion of a legally binding Advanced Care Plan gives patients the right to refuse treatment in case of incurable disease or injury, protecting doctors or other carers from accusatioins of homicide (available from ACT Health).
    Unfortunately, suicide is distressingly common amongst people without apparent clinical illness, such as unhappy adolescents, survivors of domestic violence, involvement in warfare, or drug and alcohol addiction.. Many of these deaths are preventable, and wise health administrators would save lives and money if some of the escalating costs of often fruitless intervention in disease diagnosis and treatment were transferred to prevention of disease and promotion of better health via health professionals and schools.

    Bryan Furnass, Hughes

    The big question missing from discussions of ‘‘voluntary’’ euthanasia (‘‘Let the dying taste freedom’’, Times2, May 25, p1) is ‘‘Who decides when to pull the plug?’’ Do your relatives and heirs, who would benefit by your death decide? Does some agency of a government set on reducing the cost of social and health services decide?
    You are naive if you imagine that you get to decide, because when the time comes for you to decide, your decision-making capacity will be be impaired by mental and/or physical pain. For example, does a depressed 19 year old who has lost his job and girlfriend get to decide? Does a person in a coma get to decide?

    Bruce A. Peterson, Kambah

    The Canberra Times, Letters to the Editor, May 28, 2015

  • Stuart Kennedy said:

    A sham democracy
    Congratulations to Ross Fitzgerald (‘Let the dying taste freedom’, Times2, May 26, p1). for his very rational and well-founded argument for voluntary euthanasia. Taking the hysteria out of the debate and clearly showing the unrepresentative (if not absurd and unforgivable) position of the churches and politicians in this matter is a valuable contribution to a vital subject.

    Only about 1per cent of Australian couples are gay/lesbian, (ABS, 2011) yet much of our politicians’ and media’s energy and focus is on whether or not to allow gay marriage. Meanwhile, every single one of us is likely to be directly affected at some time by the refusal of our lawmakers to countenance voluntary euthanasia of ourselves, or our loved ones, suffering from debilitating and/or terminal illness and incredible suffering!

    Where, one may ask, do our elected “representatives” and the opinion-making media, get their priorities from? Perhaps they choose to focus on the trivial, or the issues affecting tiny minorities, rather than addressing the real, important, but much more controversial issues, such as euthanasia, climate change, the dumbing down of Australians generally and public debate more specifically, immigration policy, or the unmet needs of Australia’s own disadvantaged and dispossessed?

    A democratic society that is well served by its lawmakers and reporters would not now need to argue the rights and wrongs of voluntary euthanasia: the only question a dying citizen would need to ask is “where do I go to end the suffering, with dignity and self-respect?” But while church, government and the fourth estate prefer to flit from today’s fashionable topic to tomorrow’s without addressing the genuine and important concerns, then our democracy is a shallow sham. Little wonder most of us despise politicians.

    Stuart Kennedy, Narooma, NSW

    The Canberra Times, Letter to the editor, May 29, 2015

  • Christopher Prowse, Catholic Archbishop of Canberra/Goulburn. said:

    Euthanasia is dangerous, which is one of the key reasons the Catholic Church has long opposed it.

    In a column in The Canberra Times on Monday (“Let the dying taste freedom”, Times, May 25, p1), Ross Fitzgerald accused the Catholic Church of all sorts of things, but his main concern was our opposition to lethal injections.

    Euthanasia is the intentional ending of a person’s life by action, such as a lethal injection, or by stopping reasonable care. Catholics instead support good end-of-life care that takes away people’s pain and makes them comfortable.

    I want to concentrate on just three of the many reasons legalised euthanasia would be dangerous.

    First, legal euthanasia would put pressure on vulnerable people to request a lethal dose.

    Fear, depression, loneliness, not wanting to be a burden, even pressure by family members, can all be factors in someone asking for euthanasia.

    If euthanasia were allowed, the concern is that vulnerable people would be overwhelmed by these pressures rather than seeking help.

    Just to speak of euthanasia as a treatment option would send a very strong signal to people that their life is of no great consequence and that their remaining days have no value.

    We should not put vulnerable people in that position; they deserve our unquestioning love, respect and support.

    Second, acceptance of euthanasia cannot be limited.

    If people accept that it is all right to offer euthanasia to someone who has a terminal illness, why not also allow euthanasia for someone who is not terminally ill but who suffers from a very difficult medical condition? If it is humane to allow euthanasia for someone who requests it, isn’t it also humane for someone with the same condition even if they cannot request it?

    In 1996-97, Australia had the opportunity to see how euthanasia operates, when it was legal in the Northern Territory. Despite claims of so-called strict safeguards, people engaged in doctor-shopping, searching Australia to find anyone willing to sign off on their lethal dose. Only one doctor was involved in all the deaths, and four of the seven people considered for euthanasia suffered from depression.

    In those overseas jurisdictions where euthanasia is permitted, the legal boundaries have expanded over the years to include people who are “tired of living” and even to children, with the consent of their parents.

    Lastly, legal euthanasia would undermine the human dignity of all people by allowing us to think that death is a solution to serious and difficult conditions such as cancer, depression or Alzheimer’s.

    Compassion involves walking with people in their suffering, attending to their needs and helping them to live the rest of their lives in the best comfort possible. Fortunately, good end-of-life care can help people to both live and die well but it only works if we recognise the human dignity of all, not just those who are strong enough to insist on their right to live.

    We are very fortunate in Canberra to have the excellent Clare Holland House hospice. Operated by the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary-Calvary Health Care, the hospice offers expertise in end-of-life care to promote human dignity, but not all communities in Australia are so fortunate. Catholic hospitals have championed palliative care in this country to ensure Australians can have a good death. There is a great need for extra funding so all people can have access. No one should be denied palliative care when they need it.

    It is not hard to imagine that funding for palliative care would suffer in a time of budget restraint if euthanasia were an alternative.

    The church has an obligation and a responsibility to participate in important public debates, such as the debate over euthanasia. We argue our case in the public square in terms that can be understood and accepted by all people of good will. All we ask is our arguments be considered on their merits.

    We should never forget that vulnerable people such as the elderly are relying on us to affirm their value, to share our lives with them and resist the pressure to legalise euthanasia.

    Christopher Prowse is Catholic Archbishop of Canberra/Goulburn.

    The Canberra Times, Friday 29 May, 2015

  • Margaret Fox said:

    Matters of choice

    I drew an interesting parallel between Ross Fitzgerald’s opinion piece “Let the dying taste freedom” (Times2, May 26, p1) on euthanasia liberation and Jenny Goldie’s letter to the editor (May 26).

    She pointed out that while the original intention of women’s liberation was to give women a choice to work, these days, most women have no choice but to work if they wish to meet their own, their families’ and society’s expectations.

    If assisted suicide is similarly liberated, we could soon find ourselves living in a world where we no longer have a choice but are expected to die prematurely rather than let nature take its course.

    Margaret Fox, Watson

    The Canberra Times, Saturday 30 May, 2015

  • Dr Peter Smith & Richard Philippa, Theodore said:

    Real compassion

    I have no doubt Archbishop Christopher Prowse (“Real love and care is the alternative to euthanasia”, Times2, May 29, p5) would agree with me that one of the saddest revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to the Sexual Abuse of Children is that well-meaning and compassionate people forced victims to either remain silent in order to secure some compassionate compensation or to speak out and face the onslaught of a barrage from a highly qualified legal team.

    Real care, love and compassion does not require us to abandon our rights to either clerics or politicians. Rather, as Ross Fitzgerald (“Let the dying taste freedom”, Times2, May 26, p1) convincingly argues, real care, love and compassion respects the rights and dignity of the dying by not denying them the right to choose for themselves whether or not to take up the opportunity for a medically assisted death “when they rationally decide that they have suffered enough”.

    Dr Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW

    Christopher Prowse thinks his church has an obligation to participate in public debates regarding euthanasia. Unfortunately, any moral authority the Catholic Church may have had has been eroded by the continuing revelations of child sex abuse in the organisation. People have lost trust in the Catholic clergy. If he can’t work out why, then carry on with issues that are safe to pursue: euthanasia, illegal immigrants etc.

    Richard Philippa, Theodore

    The Canberra Times, Letters to the Editor, June 2, 2015

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