‘Euthanasia could become a shortcut’

“Our eye and the law’s concern must always be not for those who are invulnerable but for the vulnerable.”

An Australian lawyer and Catholic priest defends his right to speak up in the assisted dying debate

By Fr. Frank Brennan, SJ

Editor’s note. This article is based on a homily given by author on May 16. It was reposted at Mercatornet and reposted with permission.

Last weekend, the colour magazine of The Weekend Australian carried a front-page feature, “Final Wish”, which deals with the assisted dying laws which are sweeping the country.

The author, Kathy Marks, has sensitively interviewed a number of people who have availed themselves of these new laws. She also interviewed loved ones and well-known long-time advocates for euthanasia like Dr Philip Nitschke and Rodney Syme.

Unsurprisingly, they think the limits put on the new laws are too restrictive and would like to see state assistance with voluntary death made available to all persons confronting existential suffering wanting to put an end to things.

Kathy Marks also interviewed me at some length. She accurately and pithily summarised my arguments thus:

‘Frank Brennan, the Jesuit priest and law professor, fears the right of conscientious objection – which also applies to healthcare institutions – will be watered down over time. He is concerned, too, that “euthanasia could become a shortcut” in remote areas with poor palliative care. “For centuries, ‘Do not harm and do not kill’ was a clear line, and people knew what it meant,” he says. “As a society we’ve now departed from that, and there’s no other line with equal clarity or depth.”’

The Victorian minister Jill Hennessy admits that “wherever you make a law you draw a line, and people are going to fall either side of it”. As predicted, some of those objecting to my arguments play the man in the clerical collar rather than the ball.

Here are a couple of comments posted on The Weekend Australian website in response to the piece:

  • ‘It is good that politicians have stopped being bullied by religious fundamentalists.’
  • ‘No-one should be allowed to use religious argument on this issue other than to argue for not using VAD (Voluntary Assisted Dying) facilities themselves, until they provide credible and sufficient evidence of the basis for their belief (hint, they haven’t, they almost certainly can’t).

The arguments by some that they are speaking from an “ethical” position, not from their religious beliefs, is almost always a fallacy. The so-called ethical position almost always comes down to the proscriptions of their respective religion.

Our world is a very different place from what it was 50 years ago. In 1970 we were a country of 12.5 million people with a life expectancy of 71.2 years. Now we are a country of 26 million people with a life expectancy of 83.5 years.

If you are in any doubt that the nation is confronting a crisis in the provision of palliative care, just consider some of the findings from the recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

The number of Australians aged 85 years and over will increase from half a million in 2018 (2.0% of the Australian population) to more than 1.5 million by 2058 (3.7 percent of the population). Two years ago, there were 4.2 working age (15–64 years) people for every Australian aged 65 years or over. By 2058, this will have decreased to 3.1.

The royal commission reported ‘that residential aged care staff tend to be under-skilled and under-educated in palliative care, and there is a lack of suitably qualified staff to manage palliative care adequately.’ The commission recommended that ‘High quality dementia and palliative care should be considered core business for aged care providers.’

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 anticipate in the first 12 months, based on overseas experience, around a dozen people that will access voluntary assisted dying.’

In fact, 224 people chose voluntarily assisted dying under the new laws in their first 18 months of operation. And another 100 people had the death-dealing medication delivered to them but decided not to use it.

One does not have to be a religious fundamentalist to be urging caution as these new laws are developed in other Australian states with fewer and fewer restrictions, reducing the imperative for governments and parliaments to provide adequate resources for good palliative care of an ageing population.

My concern is not so much for the competent, well supported people like those interviewed in the colour story. Our eye and the law’s concern must always be not for those who are invulnerable but for the vulnerable. As Lord Sumption once put it in the UK Supreme Court:

‘There is no complete solution to the problem of protecting vulnerable people against an over-ready resort to suicide . . . The real question about all of these possibilities is how much risk to the vulnerable are we prepared to accept in this area in order to facilitate suicide for 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 the vulnerable to be protected from overt or covert pressure to kill themselves is inevitably sensitive to a state’s most fundamental collective moral and social values.’

I make no apology for raising these matters though I be a priest.

I have every sympathy for those persons who want to avail themselves of state authorised assistance with terminating their lives when in situations of acute suffering. But I also have a deep concern for those who are being overlooked in these times of rapid legal change. In this time between the bookends, when the Lord commissions us to go forth into the world, I take heart from the observation of St John Henry Newman in his book on The Arians of the Fourth Century. Writing in 1833 at Oxford, Newman asserted:

In truth, the Church was framed for the express purpose of interfering, or (as irreligious men will say) meddling in the world. It is the plain duty of its members, not only to associate internally, but also to develop that internal union in an external warfare with the spirit of evil, whether in Kings’ courts or among the mixed multitude’.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating once labelled me “the meddling priest”. I think we Catholics should be doing more meddling, not less. Our arguments, like those of others who differ from us, should be subjected to close scrutiny.

We have nothing to fear from civic discourse and public deliberation. Let’s always ask how any change to the law or public policy will affect the most vulnerable and not just how it will enhance the liberty of the invulnerable. Let’s not just stand by idly looking up to the sky.