Call for swift action on euthanasia bill

Good news! Opponents of Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) in New South Wales have an opportunity to influence those who are making life-and-death decisions about our laws into the future. But you need to act before 22 November.

So says Michael Stead, Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, who has circulated a document in which he gives eight reasons why Christians need to make their views known on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, recently introduced into the NSW parliament by MP Alex Greenwich.

Sydney’s Archbishop Kanishka Raffel added his voice to the plea on Twitter this week, urging Christians to submit their views in a clickable online questionnaire set up by the NSW Legislative Council as part of its inquiry into the Bill after the parliamentary debate was suspended in October.

Raffel posted: “I’m urging people of Christian faith to speak up against the assisted suicide Bill which fundamentally changes the doctor-patient relationship, and our culture. It’s supremely naïve to think ‘if you don’t choose it, it won’t affect you’. Submissions here.”

(For context, see here.)

To help people formulate their arguments, Bishop Stead has sent a document to all the rectors (senior ministers) in the Sydney Diocese (region) outlining why VAD – or as he prefers to call it, physician-assisted suicide – crosses a dangerous line at a societal as well as theological point of view.

“What I’m encouraging rectors to do is to tell your congregations about this and get them to click on the link and answer the survey. And there’s an option to contribute up to 300 words as to why you’re opposed to this. My hope would be that if some of the points that I’m raising resonate, that people might want to put those points in their own words,” Bishop Stead said.

But with the deadline for submissions less than three weeks away on 22 November, he said people need to get cracking.

While the VAD legislation specifically denies that the term suicide is appropriate in this context, Stead insists this is one of its many misleading aspects.

“If suicide means the intentional ending of one’s life, it’s hard to describe what this bill is doing in any other terms,” he said.

“Nor is it voluntary assisted dying in the sense that a person who has 12 months to live is not dying. They may well have a terminal condition, but they are not on the point of dying. We’re not easing their way into death – we are terminating their life.”

“We are no longer saying that all human life is precious and we will strive to encourage people to stay alive as long as we possibly can.” – Michael Stead

While Stead’s eight points against VAD stem from a Christian viewpoint – that all life is precious and God is the only one who determines the beginning and end of life – he bases his arguments on the universal value of respect for human life, which has been fundamental for all societies everywhere.

“We are no longer saying that all human life is precious and we will strive to encourage people to stay alive as long as we possibly can; we’re actually crossing that line by endorsing voluntary assisted dying.”

He also calls out the twisted language of the bill in promoting the value of allowing people to die with dignity.

“Whilst it sounds lovely – who wouldn’t want to die with dignity? – it’s actually sending entirely the wrong message, which is when a person dies because of physical incapacity, they’re no longer dying with dignity. And I want to say ‘No, the person still has their intrinsic dignity before God, whether or not they’re still a valuable contributing member of society who is fully in control of their bodily functions or not. The dignity is not dependent upon our autonomy and our self.’”

“It signals that the government wants there to be an opportunity for public debate, which is good.” – Michael Stead

Stead welcomed the delay in voting on the legislation because its introduction in October came at a time when medical professionals, who would normally be vocal in their opposition, were still tied up in treating COVID patients and had no time for advocacy.

“It signals that the government wants there to be an opportunity for public debate, which is good … It effectively means that the bill can’t pass this year and therefore will be debated next year, which is a helpful outcome.”

He rejected the view that opposition to the bill was doomed to fail considering every other state had already sanctioned VAD.

“The reality is, although it feels like we’re the last domino to fall because all the other Australian states have now got legislation in place, it’s not the case. Voluntary assisted dying is not a thing in the UK and in many other parts of the world. And we don’t have to follow lemming-like after Victoria and Tasmania and Queensland. New South Wales ought to make up its own mind rather than just following along. We should decide for ourselves rather than be forced to a conclusion by other states.”

Stead said the current bill had fewer protections in it than the one that the NSW parliament rejected, by one vote, in 2017. “Things haven’t changed that much in three years. Why would we want a bill that’s got less protections?”

One worry is that the time from making an initial request for VAD to a final commitment is only five days in the NSW bill as opposed to nine days in some other jurisdictions. “And it also doesn’t require any consultation with the person’s regular doctors. And so somebody in a moment of depression or in a condition of depression could form the view that ‘my suffering is intolerable’ and they find two doctors who are willing to say, ‘yes, they are mentally competent,’ without being able to talk to the physician has been caring for this person for years, or indeed even talking to their family members.

“A person could come to that view, commit to that view and be dead within a week – and the person’s family and friends and all of their regular medical providers and specialists wouldn’t have been involved would be unaware.”

“A person could come to that view, commit to that view and be dead within a week.” – Michael Stead

Stead has no hesitation in acknowledging that people have suffered in the past as they approached death. But, he says, many people’s views on the topic have been shaped by a failure to understand the advances in palliative care medicine over the past 20 years.

“The reality is now, almost nobody needs to experience intolerable suffering whereby I actually mean, physical suffering. I’m not talking about the psychological distress, but in terms of the ability of palliative care to effectively relieve pain, almost nobody needs to endure intolerable suffering provided they’ve got access to appropriate palliative care.”

However, the problem is that only about 50 per cent of New South Wales has access to the highest quality palliative care and bringing in VAD “disincentivises” appropriate funding of palliative care across the state.

“Right now, if I’m living in a city with private health insurance, I’m sweet, but you live in rural NSW, your only option is to be relocated to the city hundreds of miles away from your family. That’s not really an option and so your choice becomes voluntary assisted dying or intolerable suffering. That’s a terrible choice. I think giving people the choice to make decisions about voluntary assisted dying before we’ve sorted out appropriate palliative care is entirely the wrong way.”

The VAD bill was supposedly buttressed by 100,000 submissions in support. Can Christians equal these voices in opposition?

Bishop Stead’s eight reasons to oppose Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD)
  • Christian opposition to voluntary assisted dying is grounded in the knowledge that all human life is precious in God’s sight, that God alone determines the limits of human life, and that the Bible prohibits the purposeful killing of innocent people. Christians are called to be compassionate, but this looks like care for others to the very end of their life, not intervening to unnaturally end that life.
  • Respect for human life is not just a religious value, but a foundational value for all societies. The value and dignity of each person is not diminished by age, disease, dependence or disability. Those whose lives end in infirmity and incapacity are no less “dying with dignity”. VAD is based on a destructive narrative of societal utilitarianism, in which people only have dignity when they have capacity, and their value is based on their contribution to society.
  • VAD is promoted as the answer for those with intolerable suffering, but for those who have access to state-of-the-art palliative care, almost no one needs to endure intolerable suffering. Palliative care, which deserves greater investment, is a more effective and just way of addressing suffering in death. VAD is a poor alternative to the proper funding of best–practice palliative care.
  • It is not true that VAD only impacts those who choose it. The legalisation of VAD would impact all the terminally ill, by forcing them to make a choice between natural death and VAD. Those who already feel that their illness is a burden on their family may feel that the “right thing to do” is bring that burden to an end, solely because they now have the option to do so. Furthermore, in the long run VAD will diminish the options for palliative care for everyone, as governments have an excuse to continue to under-fund palliative care. Effective palliative care may become a “choice” only of those in capital cities or with private health insurance.
  • Elder abuse and the risk of elder abuse are increasing threats in Australia. A 2015 NSW Parliamentary inquiry revealed shocking accounts of elder abuse. It is naive to think that the limited safeguards in the Bill will prevent manipulation of the vulnerable and the frail aged. Elderly Australians suffering from dementia are particularly susceptible to elder abuse. There are insufficient safeguards contained in the Bill to protect vulnerable, older Australians suffering from dementia or other forms of cognitive impairment.
  • VAD will fundamentally undermine the trust of the doctor-patient relationship and the “do no harm” purpose of medical care. Lethal medication is not health care. It is contrary to the goals of medicine and medical ethics. The Australian Medical Association has been consistent in its opposition to the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Its official position is that ‘doctors should not be involved in interventions that have as their primary intention the ending of a person’s life.’
  • Those entering Residential Aged Care communities and Palliative Care facilities should have the option of choosing a safe-haven where VAD is not practiced. Uncertainty about this will lead to anxiety in vulnerable people, especially among those with diminished cognitive capacity who find out that the carers working to sustain their lives are also involved in ending the lives of others.
  • Those who advocate for VAD deny the ‘slippery slope’. Yet the experience in overseas jurisdictions with legal euthanasia reveals continued pressure to broaden eligibility criteria, once the state has declared–as a matter of principle–it will assist its citizen who want to end their lives. Based on overseas experience, it is inevitable that future amendments will widen the scope of this legislation, and include not just those in the last stages of life but those who have chronic physical or mental illness as well as self-declared unbearable suffering.