My latest article for Humanists Australia has just been published on Medium. It asks – should ANZAC Day public commemorations be purely secular? Are the current Christian services divisive? And do they reflect the true Anzac ethos?
During the Sky News leaders’ debate last night (20/4/22), the mother of an autistic child asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison why she should vote for his party, given that, following a review, her son’s NDIS had been slashed by 30 per cent. Morrison responded:
“I’ve been blessed, we’ve got two children that don’t … haven’t had to go through that. And so for parents, with children who are disabled, I can only try and understand your aspirations for those children.”
Not surprisingly, many people took that to mean:
“Geez, lady, I dunno. Us being good Christians, me and Jen, God gifted us with “normal” children.
You have to understand, if you do the right thing, praise the Lord and learn to speak in Tongues, you get rewarded. If you piss God off, you end up with a kid on the NDIS.
Who’s fault’s that? Certainly not mine; certainly not the taxpayers’!
So, instead of bitching about the NDIS, lady, maybe you should look at what you did to get yourself into this pickle, eh?
When’s the last time you praised the Lord? Did you have premarital sex? Did you vote “Yes” in the marriage equality postal survey? Have you ever had an abortion? Do you even tithe? God, forbid! You’re not bloody Catholic, are you?
Maybe try getting right with God and your kid will be cured. Tithe enough and God might even make you rich.
By the way, would you like to join my Amway downline?”
Harsh? I don’t think so.
Morrison makes no secret of the fact he is a Pentecostal Christian – absolutely immersed in that faith (see my post about that here). Pentecostals are big on shrugging off institutional responsibility and apportioning individual blame, and there’s not much difference between their views on poverty and their thoughts about disability.
The Prosperity Gospel teaches that if you’re not at the top of the Amway pyramid, it’s your own damned fault. As Morrison said to people living in poverty in Australia, “If you have a go in this country you’ll get a go.” (Tell that to all the Pentecostal Christians with garages full of cleaning products they can’t sell.)
It’s this mindset – that if people are struggling they only have themselves to blame – that rationalises Morrison’s determination to keep the NewStart allowance at $46 per day. Living in destitution is seen as a surefire way of motivating bludgers – oops, sorry – people to ‘have a go’ in Morrison’s Australia.
As Tanya Levin, a former member/victim of Hillsong Church and author of the exposé People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of a Life Inside and Out of Hillsong” explains:
“Prosperity theology is explicit in its assertion that wealth demonstrates God’s approval. The prime minister believes that “the poor you shall always have with you”. It is understood that if you are not financially successful, you have not tithed enough, prayed enough, or been holy enough.”
This prosperity gospel thinking is a mirror image of the Pentecostal theology relating to disability. But Morrison was never meant to say it out loud.
Following an outcry from people with disabilities, the families of those with disabilities and social media in general, today has seen a great deal of re-framing and back-peddling from the Morrison camp.
Morrison has apologised for his comment, saying:
“I meant no offence by what I said last night but I accept that it has caused offence to people … I think people would also appreciate that I would have had no such intention of suggesting that anything other than every child is a blessing is true.
Every child is precious and a blessing to every parent.
I don’t think that’s in dispute and I don’t think anyone would seriously think that I had the intent of anything different to that.”
Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham insisted the Prime Minister’s words had been taken out of context:
“The PM, actually in that context, was talking about not having to deal with the many challenges of systems that you have to work through to get support.”
While Senator Hollie Hughes, a conservative Catholic, said the disability community’s ‘rage machine’ was to blame for the sector’s failure to achieve “constructive gains.”
Let’s be clear. The Prime Minister didn’t ‘mis-speak’, he wasn’t taken ‘out of context’, his words aren’t being twisted by his opponents. In a rare moment of honesty Scott Morrison said exactly what he has been taught to think by his church: that disease and disability are inflicted by God as punishment for sin. Following this line of thought, the logical conclusion is that those who follow the Pentecostal faith will be ‘blessed’ with exemptions from these ‘curses’.
I understand this aspect of Pentecostalism from bitter experience. When a member of my family began experiencing worrying symptoms, they were referred by their church to a church-approved, Pentecostal psychologist. The verdict, after much probing into the piety of my relative, was that the symptoms were a punishment for the fact one of our ancestors was a Grand Master of the Freemasons. Ardent prayer was prescribed. (In fact, as it turned out, my relative had a malignant tumour.)
This toxic belief that disease and disability is either self-inflicted or the result of some kind of ancestral sin is causing havoc in African countries that have been effectively colonised by evangelical Christians of the Pentecostal variety. In Uganda and elsewhere, sick and disabled people are expelled from their homes, brutalised and sometimes burned as witches. This is not an Indigenous practice – it has been imported and inflamed by missionaries of Pentecostal Churches.
Reporting from the ground, Ugandan Humanist, Leo Igwe says:
“It cannot be overemphasized that churches in Africa are instrumental to the witch craze in the region. Programs and activities of faith organizations continue to fuel witchcraft suspicions with sometimes horrific consequences on alleged witches.”
Similarly, a theological treatise on Pentecostalism in Zimbabwe states:
” …. there is a common misconception in these prevailing and mushrooming prophetic, charismatic and Pentecostal religious organizations that people living with Disability have been either cursed, bewitched or possessed by the evil spirit.”
Australian Pentecostals may not be as forthright about this toxic belief as the evangelicals infecting African nations, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, bubbling just below the surface – until the Prime Minister had a brain fart on national TV.
It wasn’t that long ago when Hillsong sponsored Mercy Ministries, an arm of the church set up to heal young women suffering from eating and other ‘disorders’ (including – shock, horror – lesbianism). In exchange for their social security cheques, these vulnerable girls were promised in-house therapy and treatment. But what Hillsong/Mercy delivered was not medical treatment but exorcisms.
Call it demon possession or witchcraft, the basic premise of this theology is that disability and disease are Satanic and the result of some kind of personal or familial spiritual weakness.
Scott Morrison was a member of Hillsong Church (Waterloo) around the time that Mercy Ministries was operating, but he is now a member of Horizon Church (Sutherland). But Morrison maintains strong ties to Hillsong. In his first speech to Parliament, and even more recently, Morrison cited disgraced former leader, Brian Houston, as a spiritual mentor.
Even after decamping to Horizon Church, Morrison was pastored by Michael Murphy, the former Associate Pastor to Brian Houston at Hillsong. So, we can be sure that the spiritual lessons he was being taught at Horizon were much the same as those at Hillsong.
Horizon is now headed by pastors Brad and Alison Bonhomme but, with Horizon still associated with the Pentecostal Australian Christian Churches, and this view of disability being fairly consistent throughout that denomination, we can assume the same kinds of beliefs prevail.
In a scholarly paper on Pentecostalism Luke Thompson from the University of South Florida explains how Pentecostals think about sickness and disability:
“Well established within Pentecostal theology is the belief that the presence of suffering (sickness or debilitating conditions) may indicate personal sin, symbolize unholiness, or result from demonic influence.”
According to Thompson, Pentecostals:
“readily accept Exodus 15:26, a passage of scripture indisputably relating to ancient Jews, which links health with obedience, and sickness with disobedience as evidence for the contemporary normative association of sin with suffering.”
“Those who repent or who are truly saved are believed to be ‘supernaturally rescued’ from suffering through prayer. Pentecostals’ view of the Bible supports the Pentecostal view of disability.”
Pentecostals believe that healing is to be expected as a result of obedience and faith (or the casting out of demons). It follows then that lack of obedience or lack of faith is to blame when the disabled stubbornly refuse to “heal themselves”.
Given this perspective it’s not surprising that, under Morrison’s stewardship, the NDIS and the people it is meant to serve are in crisis. Nor is it a coincidence that this monumental fuck-up has occurred under the control of Morrison’s spiritual brother, fellow Pentecostal, Stuart Robert – the man Morrison affectionately calls “Brother Stuie”.
It was Brother Stuie who praised Scott Morrison’s rather creepy practice of surreptitiously “laying hands” upon random strangers and praying for them. One wonders how often that was inflicted upon unsuspecting people from the disability community?
Last night, when Scott Morrison said he was ‘blessed’ to have two non-disabled children, he meant exactly what he said. It was a dog-whistle, a humble-brag – “Look at me. See how holy I am? God gave me kids off the good pile, and boy, do I deserve it!”
Of course, he’d never be so crass as to say it as baldly as that in public, but the theology in which Morrison has immersed himself throughout his adult life leaves no doubt that, despite his protestations to the contrary, this was, indeed, what he meant.
In the 2022 Federal election, Katherine Deves is Scott Morrison’s ‘captain’s pick’ for Warringah, the electorate formerly represented by Tony Abbott and, currently, by independent Zali Steggall.
This week, social and mainstream media has erupted over the fact that Ms Deves is a notorious TERF – a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This claim can be made with no fear of defamation. Ms Deves, herself, has proudly confirmed this status by wishing an interviewer a “Merry TERF-mas”.
Specifically, Ms Deves wants to ‘protect women’ by excluding transgender women from sport. Make no mistake, TERFS (who argue that transgender women aren’t ‘real’ women) are an extremist fringe group and do not represent the vast majority of feminists or, indeed, women in general. But this is not the argument I wish to make against Ms Deves.
The cruel, harmful, callous divisiveness of this candidate’s crusade against trans women should be sufficient reason for her to be disendorsed. But even for those who are not offended by her stance on transgender women, there is a very good reason to reject Ms Deves’ aspiration to represent the electorate of Warringah. In my opinion, Ms Deves has failed a crucial test of professional competence which should exclude her from the opportunity of holding any public office.
A huge part of of a politicians’ responsibility to their electorate involves reading reports from various stakeholders, critically analysing those reports, and arriving at a conclusion based on which information provides the best evidence for a particular course of action. Using these skills, we entrust our political representatives to choose a position and defend it by reporting honestly and accurately on the material which supports it. Our entire democratic system depends, in large part, to our politicians mastering these skills of comprehension, critical analysis and clear and accurate communication.
Ms Deves has recently apologised for a statement in which she suggested that 50 per cent of transgender women are sex offenders. Regardless of the context in which it was made, the statement is false.
I happily concede that this single tweet may have been part of a broader conversation with additional context – but Ms Deves had an opportunity to clarify that in her apology, and didn’t. Further, because her social media was such a sewer of transphobic excrement, Ms Deves had to close down her social media accounts to avoid scrutiny – so it’s no longer possible for me to see the entire thread. Therefore, I can only critique Ms Deves on the statement she has clearly, and unequivocally, made in this tweet.
First, Ms Deves refers to ‘males with trans identities’ when, of course, what she means is transgender women.
Second, she suggests that 50 per cent of transgender women are sex offenders, compared to 20 per cent of men. This is clearly untrue.
In Australia the rate of sexual offences in relation to the male population is about 55 in 100,000. That’s .06 per cent, not 20 per cent as stated by Ms Deves. For someone seeking a career in which statistics play a huge role, that’s an incredibly big margin of error.
The report on which Ms Deves’ allegation is based is a 2018 study commissioned by the trans-exclusionary radical feminist group, Fair Play for Women. It took a while to pin this down because Ms Deves hiked up their figure from 41 per cent to 50 per cent (what’s 9 per cent between TERFY friends?). As we shall see, in a catastrophic failure of either professional skills or personal ethics, Ms Deves completely misrepresented this discredited study.
Importantly, the Fair Play for Women report did not look at the general population but at a particular population of prison inmates in the UK – something that Ms Deves did not refer to in her tweet. To be fair, Twitter’s brevity does mean that sometimes you have to leave stuff out. But, Deves’ defamatory tweet was extremely brief – she still had an unused 134 characters which she could have used to clarify that she was talking about inmates in English and Welsh prisons, not all men or all transgender women.
Politics requires superior communication skills – even when communicating in précis. Despite being trained as a lawyer, and despite having plenty of room to clarify her statement, Ms Deves sent out a tweet which clearly implied that 50 per cent of all transgender women are sex offenders. It was, at the very least, careless and, at worse, malicious.
Ms Deves’ willingness to use the Fair Play for Women report in public discourse is cause for alarm. Political representatives act (or should act) on the best information they can accrue on any particular issue. But not all information a politician receives is good, accurate, nor even honest information. It is their job to sort the wheat from the chaff and they must have the skill-set to do this.
The questions politicians must ask of reports and submissions are the same questions academics ask:
- Who wrote this?
- What is their agenda?
- Who did the research?
- Is the methodology sound?
- Are the findings consistent with those of experts, or are they wildly out of kilter?
- If so, why?
- Is there some ideological bias here?
- Are the figures contested? If so, by whom?
- Are the figures supported by official sources?
- Is this study from a peer-reviewed, credible academic journal?
If we choose politicians who carelessly latch on to any report that appears to support their particular bias – no matter how disreputable the source or how shaky the figures – we end up with politicians of the calibre of Pauline Hanson, Stuart Robert and George Christensen. I think even Captain Scott Morrison would agree that’s a very low bar to set.
As a professional researcher I do these kinds of checks every day. Yes, it’s time consuming. But I’ve found that if you look, you’ll often find that reports which feature in public debates have already been expertly interrogated. That’s how I found that the BBC had fact-checked Fair Play for Women’s claim that 41 per cent of transgender female prisoners were sex offenders, compared with 20 per cent of male prisoners, and determined that it was, to be blunt, bullshit.
The BBC reality-check team went straight to the authority on prisons in the UK – the Ministry of Justice. The MoJ confirmed that, to the best of their knowledge, in the whole of England and Wales, there were 125 transgender prisoners (but they conceded they really don’t have accurate numbers). They could not say whether these were transgender males or females.
If the Ministry of Justice says they couldn’t do the study undertaken by Fair Play for Women because reliable data simply isn’t available, you have to seriously question the validity of the study on which Ms Deves has, inadvertently, staked her future political career.
Remember that old quote about there being “lies, damned lies, and statistics”? In my work I repeatedly find that bad actors use dodgy statistics in a strategy commonly referred to as FUD – weaponising “fear, uncertainty and distrust”.
The idea that 41 per cent of transgender women in prisons are sex offenders is confronting and scary – and it’s intended to be. But even if that figure were true (and it isn’t) let’s look at it in context.
In 2017 (the year in which the Fair Play for Women report was compiled) there were 82,773 inmates in English and Welsh prisons. That means that, according to the best estimate of the Ministry of Justice, identifiable transgender people accounted for .001 per cent of felons.
And even if it were true that 50 per cent of those people were sex offenders, they would account for a minuscule .05 per cent of the prison population.
Do the people of Warringah really deserve a politician who’s willing to weaponise “fear, uncertainty and doubt” against a minority group? This isn’t how responsible politicians behave.
But it’s not just a question of ethics. It’s a question of responsible use of public resources; and a politician’s time is a tax-payer funded resource. Constituents should not be paying for a politician to spend a disproportionate amount of time on a meaningless hobby horse when there are more important issues to be concerned about. Consider, for example, George Christensen’s passionate interest in adult entertainment bars in Manila which takes him away from his electorate for months of the year. OK, Ms Deves may not be cruising titty-bars in the Phillipines, but she has decided to devote an inordinate amount of her time to campaigning against a group of people which, in the very worst case scenario, might (but doesn’t) account for .01 per cent of prison inmates. Doesn’t that sound just a wee bit silly?
Of course, Ms Deves will claim that her primary concern is that cisgender women are unfairly disadvantaged by transgender women’s involvement in competitive sport. Research into this issue is on-going and contested, but a systemic review of the literature in 2017 concluded that:
“there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery).”
And, even if subsequent studies show that, in some cases or in particular sports, some athletes have an unfair advantage, the solution is not to ban transgender athletes, but to implement a system which takes account of abnormal physiological advantages of competitors, regardless of their gender.
Surely we need politicians who can think laterally about problems to find solutions that don’t unfairly demonise or disadvantage minorities?
Returning to Deves’ assertions about transgender women in UK prisons. As you probably suspected, neither 50 per cent, nor even 41 per cent of female transgender inmates in English and Welsh prisons are sexual offenders. In reality, the figure magicked up by Fair Play for Women is based on identifiable transgender prisoners serving long sentences for serious crimes in the UK prison system and involves a ridiculously small cohort of just 125 subjects.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed to the BBC that counting transgender inmates is not a simple task. For various reasons, transgender females serving shorter sentences are less likely to appear in official statistics (more details are included in the article).
Any study that looks at identifiable transgender female prisoners will inevitably provide an inaccurate picture, because only a portion of the population (the very worst offenders) is included in the data. The Fair Play for Women report ignores an unknown number of unidentified transgender transgressors in jail for any number of lesser crimes. The “60 out of 125” prisoners identified as sex offenders in the study may, in reality, be 60 out of 250 or 500 or 1000. The MoJ doesn’t know, so neither do the geniuses who wrote the Fair Play for Women paper.
Imagine if a politician were asked to determine whether a bridge, or a carpark, or a childcare centre was required in their electorate, but, had their own intractable view on the necessity of the infrastructure. In order to get get the result they want, the politician only canvasses information from the portion of the electorate they know will support their foregone conclusion; ignoring the rest. This would, of course, be reprehensible and dishonest behaviour. But, in looking only at the worst portion of the prison population, this is, essentially what happened in the Fair Play for Women report. The dodgy use of data in this report, and Ms Deves’ uncritical promotion of its findings, is either incompetent or malicious.
There are many reasons why the people of Warringah should be very wary about voting for Katherine Deves.
Katherine Deves is a transphobe and that should be more than enough to exclude her from membership of any self-respecting political party – let alone pre-selection as a political candidate.
In her crusade against transgender people, Ms Deves has distastefully compared herself to the Germans who stood up against Nazis.
And while 41 per cent of transgender females are absolutely not sex offenders, we know that a percentage close to this will attempt to take their own lives; largely because of the kind of propaganda bandied about by TERFS like Ms Deves. According to a 2022 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Interpersonal Violence, between 40-56 per cent of transgender people are likely to attempt suicide. And yet, when discussing this very real concern recently, Ms Deves said:
“We hear from the other side the toll, all the harm, the devastation, we’re all going to commit suicide and blah blah.”
No politician will ever be perfect. But you would expect, at a minimum, an aspiring politician with an interest in gender issues would educate themselves about the alarming statistics relating to LGBTIQ+ suicide and self-harm. It is not unreasonable for the people of Warringah to expect that a political candidate would have sufficient human compassion not to dismiss the deaths of real people as “blah, blah, blah.”
But, even setting these glaring flaws, in perpetuating (and misquoting) the propaganda in the Fair Play for Women paper, Ms Deves has demonstrated that she lacks the critical thinking skills and discernment necessary to be an honest and effective political representative.
To be scrupulously fair, it may well be that Ms Deves (who, after all, has earned a law degree), does have the skills I have accused her of lacking, but, in her zeal to degrade transgender women, simply chose not to apply those skills. In that case, one can only view her promotion of the Fair Play for Women report as intentionally malicious and dishonest.
It’s really one or the other.
Whichever it is, the citizens of Warringah must really consider whether Katherine Deves is the calibre of politician who best represents their interests and values. I think the answer is clear.
In August last year, I compiled an A-Z list of anti-vaxxers who had died of COVID-19. This wasn’t intended to mock them or to celebrate their deaths. My purpose was simply to pull together some of the many stories circulating on the internet to serve as a cautionary message to the ‘vaccine hesitant.’ People die when they are fooled by con-artists peddling false information.
Since then, of course, there have been many more preventable deaths. Data from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (November 2021) shows that unvaccinated people are 16 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated.
Yet, the conspiracy theories continue, based on a raft of lies by anti-vaxx groups and organisations which are earning bucketloads of cash from all the ‘clicks’ and merchandise sales generated by their social media posts.
Since I wrote about preventable deaths in August, the focus of anti-vaxxers has shifted from adults to children. Early in the pandemic, it seemed that children were less susceptible to COVID-19. But with new strains, more children are falling ill, and some are dying.
In New York, this week, hospital admissions for children rose by 66 per cent. Currently, in Australia, children under 12 account for more than a fifth of all COVID-19 cases. As of November 16, 2021, there have been almost 27,000 cases in Australia among children aged zero to nine with about 2.5 per cent of them being hospitalised.
A key reason why children are being hospitalised is that many of them are not vaccinated. To date, 700 children have died in America as a result of COVID-19 – and, despite what you’ll hear from anti-vaxxers, none as a result of vaccination. Even if the death rate for children is low, we don’t yet know what the long-term health consequences might be and whether mild cases may still be associated with long COVID.
As health authorities urge parents to vaccinate their children, Children’s Health Defense (CHD), an anti-vaccination group headed by Robert F Kennedy Jr, is muddying the waters by running a global scare-campaign against vaccinating kids. This is a highly professional outfit. You can’t blame parents for being confused and frightened.
Now that Australian parents are being encourage to have their 5-11 year old children vaccinated, misinformation from Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense group is being distributed through Australian school, sporting and “mummy-blogger” networks. To those unused to sorting out fact from fiction, the CHD’s professional-looking 150-page PDF looks convincing, and terrifying. The document “Are Covid Vaxxes Safe for Children?” uses the same technique as the television commentator, Madison Madison, in the movie, “Don’t Look Up.”
“Just asking questions!” she smiles as she seeds fear, uncertainty and doubt in her viewers.
Just a few minutes’ research showed that the information being peddled by Robert F Kennedy’s CHD is patently false and misleading.
“Why?” I asked myself.
“Why would educated people spread lies designed to discourage parents from a harmless medical intervention that will potentially save their child’s life? They must know they’re telling lies and risking children’s lives. Why would anybody do that?”
A little more research and the “why” soon became clear. The answer was, as always, “money and power.”
Children’s Health Defense don’t just ‘share’ information, they invest heavily in disseminating it. An investigation by international news agency, AP, found that, along with another (subsequently banned) group, Children’s Health Defense purchased more than half the anti-vaccination advertising on Facebook. They are spending money to aggressively circulate disinformation across multiple platforms.
Since 2018, revenue earned by Children’s Health Defense has risen from $1.1 million (US) to $6.8 million. Meanwhile, Robert F Kennedy’s income from the organisation rose from $131,250 to $255,000 ($354,000 Australian).
“Since the pandemic started, Children’s Health Defense has expanded the reach of its newsletter, which uses slanted information, cherry-picked facts and conspiracy theories to spread distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines. The group has also launched an internet TV channel and started a movie studio. CHD has global ambitions.” [my emphasis]
Global ambitions: that means money and power. And if it costs a couple of thousand kid’s lives to achieve that, well, hey, who’s counting?
It’s true that CHD is a not-for-profit organisation. But who knows how the money being made from the very lucrative anti-vaxx industry is being circulated behind the scenes? According to AP, Children’s Health Defense is part of a global anti-vaxx network which is actively marketing health and vaccination disinformation for fun and profit. Like multi-level marketers, there are huge profits to be made in selling DVDs, booklets and other merchandise. Networkers also appear to be sharing income-generating affiliate links.
Professor Dorit Reiss, an expert in vaccine policy calls it a “disinformation industry.” She suggests it works in much the same way as MLM (multi-level marketing) schemes which funnel money from the grassroots to the top of the pyramid. While Children’s Health Defense denies any financial links with “for profit” organisations, AP believes money is being funnelled to the organisation both through “affiliate links” and through substantial “donations” from for-profit entities.
“has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”
But the 150 page document, now circulating widely in Australia, unleashes a tsunami of false claims making it almost impossible to refute every one.
There’s a debating technique known as the “Gish Gallop“. The strategy is to bombard your opponent with so many factoids that it is simply impossible for them to discount every one within the time allowed. Even if they successfully counter three or four, you are able to respond, “Ah yes! But what about w, x, y and z? You have no answer for those, did you? You ignored those, didn’t you?” This is the same strategy employed by Children’s Health Defense. They make so many blatantly false claims it’s simply impossible to counter every one.
Even my quick fact-check into some of the claims made by Kennedy’s CHD showed them misrepresenting scientific papers, referring to Vaccination Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) data as if every reported event was definitively linked to vaccination (that’s not how VAERS works – it’s like sending every person accused of a crime to jail without a trial!), and quoting from pre-print articles which have not yet been peer-reviewed.
Any university undergraduate who used the research methods employed by Children’s Health Defense would consistently fail their assignments; they ignore the most basic guidelines of academic research.
One of the strategies that Children’s Health Defense uses to claim legitimacy for its arguments is the Great Barrington declaration – an open letter which declares that healthy children should not be vaccinated for COVID-19. Sponsored by a libertarian think-tank, The Great Barrington declaration is, reportedly, signed by 15,000 physicians and medical scientists around the world.
The premise of this declaration has been debunked, but it gets worse. When Sky News investigated the signatories, they found among the 15,000 so called medical experts’ names:
Dr. I.P. Freely
Dr. Person Fakename
Dr. Johnny Bananas
Dr. Harold Shipman
As it turns out, you didn’t have to be a physician or a medical scientist to sign the document. It was made available to anyone to sign – and nobody verified the claims of anyone who added the moniker “Dr” or “Professor” to their name.
In addition, Sky found the ‘experts’ included:
“… 100 therapists, including massage therapists, hypnotherapists, psychotherapists and one Mongolian Khöömii Singer who describes himself as a ‘therapeutic sound practitioner.'”
Parents are under a great deal of pressure right now, and it’s not surprising they want to make the right decision for their children. It’s a crushing responsibility. We can’t expect every parent to know how to critically analyse academic texts. If information looks professional, cites what seems to be information from experts, and there’s a famous name appended to the organization disseminating it, you can’t blame parents from believing it – or at least being alarmed into a degree of vaccine hesitancy.
There is money to be made from posts that go viral on the internet, and posts that scare the bejeezus out of people are those most likely to go viral. Children’s Health Defense is not looking out for your kids, they’re almost certainly part of a multi-level marketing network which trades in disinformation. They know they’re lying. They know they’re putting children’s lives in jeopardy. But they know that playing on parents’ fears is a sure-fire way to rake in the cash. It’s a clever con and you shouldn’t bet your child’s life on them being right.
Credible resources for parents:
Australian Government Advisory on COVID-19 Vaccines for Children Aged 5-11
ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, believes the benefits of vaccination, including both direct and indirect benefits to the child, close contact and community warrant a recommendation for vaccination in this age group. Unvaccinated children will remain at greater risk of adverse outcomes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) recommend the vaccine for children aged 5-11.
Dr James Best, Chair of RACGP (Royal Australian College of General Practitioners) Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health, welcomed the approval of the vaccine for younger children, saying it is a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to protect them:
“It’s great that ATAGI feel that they have the evidence to go this step. Even though the rate of complications is lower the lower you go in age, it still happens. And we also have the other factor of PIMS-TS [as a side-effect of COVID-19] coming into the equation, as well as indirect effects like loss of school time and lack of socialisation, as well as secondary infection to household carriers who may be at higher risk, like the elderly. So there’s quite a few different factors coming into play.”
The Australian Medical Association has welcomed the TGA’s green light for the vaccine for children aged 5-11 years old. AMA Vice-President Chris May said vaccinating children would prevent outbreaks in schools – especially as the Omicron variant takes hold.
“We want to be able to keep kids going to school, stopping outbreaks occurring in schools and preventing infection going back home to families, so it’s a good time to vaccinate during the school holidays protecting kids before they return to school.”
The US medical regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says the benefits of the Pfizer vaccine “clearly outweigh” the risks of contracting COVID-19 for children aged five to 11.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 and older. Members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 14-0 to open up Pfizer vaccines to an estimated 28 million children in the USA.
The prestigious Johns Hopkins Medicine in the US also encouraged all families to have eligible children vaccinated.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the vaccine for all eligible children.
Tina Ardon, a family medicine physician from the prestigious Mayo Clinic, says it is safe to vaccinate children 5-11 for COVID-19. “The COVID-19 vaccine is extremely safe for our children. We have a number of studies that represent that we’ve had a number of children who have already received the vaccines, and we have been able to monitor those children closely. And we feel very confident this is a safe and effective vaccine,” says Dr. Ardon.
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, says:
“If you have a child 5 to 11, please get that child vaccinated to prevent them from getting anything that even resembles a serious illness.”
In the USA, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) says:
“Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 infection. ACIP recommends the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5–11 years for the prevention of COVID-19.”
Pastor Sharad Yadav of the Bread and Wine Church Community in Oregon recently wrote the following Facebook post about the benefits of joining a church. His post was shared by one of my friends, a liberal Christian from Australia. After checking Pastor Yadav’s profile and church website, I noted that his religious views seem to be, similarly, liberal – he is not one of those purse-lipped fundamentalists with whom I so often butt heads. Yet the post really troubled me.
Discussing the pastor’s post, my friend and I were dismayed that we interpreted his thoughts entirely differently – my friend, positively, me negatively. I promised to explain my reaction, so I thought it was best to do it here. I wanted to be fair (this is a discussion, not a take-down) so I contacted Pastor Yadav and he has graciously agreed to me publishing both his post and my critique. I’ve promised him a right of reply if he wishes.
Pastor Yadav writes:
As I try to remember why the hell I do this for a living, here is a handful of reasons, dear friends, to consider joining a church:
1. To join a church is to commit to a social circle you do not get to choose and can therefore show you whether your spirituality is bullshit or not.
2. Joining a church is a way of practicing – among a small group of people over a significant period of time – what you’d like the world to be like
3. To join a church is to live in rebellion against the neoliberal and capitalist forces which are brainwashing you into making your consumer desire the center of the world, reducing all your experiences of the world (including all the people in it) to instruments and resources.
4. Joining a church is to organize your life around a time to confess your limitations, culpability and imperfections together with other people so that you can get used to receiving divine forgiveness and hope in response to your honesty.
5. To join a church is to resist all traditional loyalties to state, party, culture, family or affinity in an act of loyalty to a group that transcends all natural categories.
6. Joining a church organizes your financial priorities around supporting an inclusive community for vulnerable people . . . that you actually have to live with.
7. To join a church is to cultivate an environment unlike your home, work or play where your life is not measured according to any other purpose or goal than to discover and enjoy your own humanity.
8. Joining a church is a way of maintaining healthy skepticism about human knowledge and capacities in the language of divine mystery.
9. To join a church is to cultivate an imagination for how your unique talents and creative potential can be offered on purpose for love instead of money.
10. Joining a church is a life lesson in how to deal with assholes without retaliating, dehumanizing or running away (in the desperate hope of not becoming an asshole).
I have enormous respect for my Christian friend. We agree on most things. But, while he drew inspiration from Pastor Yadav’s words, I had to admit that I read most of it with this look on my face:
And I wasn’t the only one. Responding to my friend’s post, other Christians, including a priest, suggested it also gave them a touch of the heebie-jeebies. It seems my friend and others of us in his ‘circle’ understood Pastor Yadav’s post in entirely different ways – leaving us all a bit puzzled.
What follows is an attempt to explain my discomfort. My intention is not to attack Pastor Yadav, but to show how what you write is only one part of the communication equation. How the reader interprets what you’ve written can elicit quite different meanings, and, hopefully, open up new insights and useful channels of communication.
The list starts well – I don’t have any issues with the first two points:
1. To join a church is to commit to a social circle you do not get to choose and can therefore show you whether your spirituality is bullshit or not.
2. Joining a church is a way of practicing – among a small group of people over a significant period of time – what you’d like the world to be like.
Despite my reputation, I’m not anti-religion. I understand that many people find comfort and community in religion. I appreciate that, for some people, the church provides a vessel, a captain and fellow crew members who are intent on sailing forth to change the world in positive ways. I see great common cause between us atheists and liberal Christians. I’ve always tried to work with the leaders and members of these churches, not against them. (If you agree, please follow the Twitter account for A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) – @APCVA.)
Speaking bluntly, I don’t think fundamentalist Christianity can be successfully opposed by atheists alone. It will take mainstream, liberal churches, networking together (with our support) to mount a convincing, alternative Christian narrative to the heresy of American right-wing evangelicals and the Australian Christian Lobby.
Lots of people seek community and, for many, a church is a safe, welcoming place. Not all churches, to be sure. But, I know there are some service clubs and sporting clubs, not to mention atheist groups, that are far more dysfunctional and toxic than many churches. I’ve been in some! Let’s not assume that every church is the same. If people want to join a healthy church with a view to making the world a better place for everyone, then I’m completely on board with that project.
I don’t want to lull Pastor Yadav into a false sense of security, but I’m absolutely in favour of point three.
To join a church is to live in rebellion against the neoliberal and capitalist forces which are brainwashing you into making your consumer desire the center of the world, reducing all your experiences of the world (including all the people in it) to instruments and resources.
I too, live in rebellion against the neoliberal and capitalist forces that seem to value profit above people. We live in a world in which people – even friendships – have become commodified; the multi-level marketing schemes so prevalent in fundamentalist churches is a case in point. The prosperity gospel simply puts a Jesus mask on free-market capitalism.
But, fighting back against neoliberalism doesn’t give you a free pass to mine church members for money, nor to exploit workers for their labour. I’ll say more about this when I address points 6 and 8.
So, a provisional high five on point three, Pastor Yadav! Sadly, it’s pretty much downhill from here.
Now, we come to point 4 and my nose starts twitching.
“Joining a church is to organize your life around a time to confess your limitations, culpability and imperfections together with other people so that you can get used to receiving divine forgiveness and hope in response to your honesty.“
I think there’s a real danger in inviting people into a community and encouraging them to focus on their “limitations, culpability and imperfections.” I am confident that Pastor Yadav didn’t mean it this way, but, too often, focusing on people’s vulnerabilities is a way of breaking them down; making them malleable to adopt beliefs that aren’t necessarily true, and to act in ways that aren’t necessarily good for them.
Choosing a religion (or choosing no religion) is a bit like choosing a spouse. You really don’t want to be doing it when you feel bad about yourself. You especially don’t want to be choosing a spouse who likes to focus on your faults and puts themselves forward as the one who can ‘fix’ you. There’s a huge power disparity in this kind of relationship and, even if the spouse (or church) is well-meaning, I think the temptation to exploit the power dynamic is often too great.
Instead, why not build community based on people’s strengths? Build a community of titans, not lambs. If someone does come into the community feeling unworthy, don’t respond by confirming their low opinion of themselves; focus instead on their strengths, their talents, and their inherent value. Build them up to their strongest and then see if what you have to “sell” will add value to their lives. Let them choose from a position of strength, not vulnerability.
Because I’m a relatively high profile atheist, people who have decided to leave their church occasionally contact me for guidance. My response is always, “This is your journey. Feel free to explore your options. Please don’t think atheist communities are going to be any better/nicer than Christian ones – we’re all just humans. Go at your own pace – and you can go back if you want. I’m here to support you, not deconvert you.”
In contrast, some churches (I’m not suggesting Pastor Yadav’s church here) prey on the vulnerable. They pro-actively zero in on the lost, the broken, the lonely, and the vulnerable and gather them tightly into their fold. It might seem like they’re offering redemption, but, too often, what is offered is love-bombing, brainwashing, then financial and spiritual exploitation.
How much better, stronger, and more principled is the church that says, “No, you’re not weak, you’re strong. You’re not unworthy, you’re terrific – with us or without us. Your value does not depend on your membership. If we can help you on your journey towards confidence and self-love, we’re here to support you, but not to convert you. Decide what you believe when you are whole, not now while you’re in pain.”
You need an army to change the world and, surely, it’s better to build an army with enthusiastic recruits, not bedraggled conscripts who have nowhere else to go.
My objections to Pastor Yadav’s fifth point are similar:
To join a church is to resist all traditional loyalties to state, party, culture, family or affinity in an act of loyalty to a group that transcends all natural categories.
There are often very good reasons to resist loyalties to state, party, culture or family. Nationalism is destroying America. Blind loyalty is never a good thing. And I’m a firm believer that there are often branches of the family tree that should be joyously excised with a chainsaw. What frightens me, is when institutions encourage their members to forego loyalties that aren’t necessarily unhealthy and prioritise group loyalty instead.
When you join a church, you should be adding to your social network; you should be building bridges, not burning them. Joining a church shouldn’t be like boarding the Minnow and setting off for Gilligan’s Island.
To me, encouraging followers to abandon loyalties outside the church and suggesting that the church is the only institution to which they should be loyal reeks of “abusive relationship.” (I’m not saying Pastor Yadav is doing this, only that this is what I read into it, and why I found it triggering.)
If the church is to have real value – for individuals and for society – it should be just one of the social institutions to which its members are loyal – and, of course, that loyalty should never be blind.
By point 6, I’m grimacing so hard you can see my gums.
“Joining a church organizes your financial priorities around supporting an inclusive community for vulnerable people . . . that you actually have to live with.“
OK. I understand that churches have expenses too, and it’s only fair that the people who derive benefits from them should help to finance them. Helping the poor is a noble calling; but we should talk about how liberal churches using their numbers, power and influence to lobby governments and corporations for systemic change, will do far more for the poor than handouts.
Nevertheless, it’s nice if people who have surplus funds can contributed to causes or individuals who will benefit from their largesse. But the way in which people organise their “financial priorities” should never be something the church tries to influence or direct. Membership of a church should never, ever, involve its members (who may, themselves, be vulnerable) feeling obligated or pressured (even subtly) into making financial contributions.
I’m going to let point 7 slide and go straight to point 8.
“Joining a church is a way of maintaining healthy skepticism about human knowledge and capacities in the language of divine mystery”.
As a card-carrying skeptic I get really twitchy when people talk about being skeptical about “human knowledge.” Sure, humans get things wrong – all the time. But we also have brilliant systems – like scientific method, and peer review – to ensure that, on the important things, we’re more often right than wrong.
Human knowledge isn’t static and that makes people who like the certainty of religion very uncomfortable. Yes! What we know about the world changes according to new discoveries and changing circumstances. But, just because what we know changes, doesn’t mean that what we know is wrong. For example, Charles Darwin was right about evolution but wrong about some things concerning evolution. What we’ve learned since 1859 is that while Darwin got some of the detail wrong, his general hypothesis was still right.
If point 7 is telling us that, when the Bible or your own intuition (or “common-sense”) is at odds with the consensus of human knowledge, you should “go with your gut”, then it’s sending a really dangerous message. Neither the Bible or “your gut” is a reliable replacement for knowledge accrued through academic or scientific discipline. This is the kind of wrong-thinking that has Christians claiming that Jesus is their vaccine and that their natural immunity will save them from COVID.
Skepticism is a good thing, but the extent to which one is skeptical must be measured by the level of certainty expressed by people who are experts in the field, and a scrupulously honest assessment about how your expertise compares to theirs. Believing in God doesn’t make you (or even Jesus) an epidemiologist and no church should be suggesting that it does.
In comparison with the other points, point 8 only makes me squirm slightly:
To join a church is to cultivate an imagination for how your unique talents and creative potential can be offered on purpose for love instead of money.
Volunteering can certainly help vulnerable individuals and groups in the community and it can be personally rewarding. But, too often, it’s taken for granted that people with valuable skills and knowledge should provide their services for free. Women and people with disabilities, in particular, are frequently asked to “volunteer” their services, even when men around them are being paid.
Similar to my point about financial support, nobody should ever feel obliged to volunteer. These days, churches are businesses – often wealthy ones – and pastors (generally) don’t work as volunteers. Why? Because (generally) they have mortgages to pay and families to feed. Congregation members, similarly, need to pay the bills. Time spent volunteering may take away from time spent doing paid work. It isn’t a sin to prioritise paying your utility bills or your kids’ school fees over saving the world!
Many churches have accumulated their wealth by exploiting their congregations for volunteer labour. Hillsong is a case in point. I’m as committed as the next person to making the world a better place, but I don’t (generally) volunteer my services as a researcher. I work with people who lobby professionally and they pay me a fair (but not exorbitant) sum to assist. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to “save the world” and pay the bills at the same time.
If churches need human labour to do their work, they should (generally) be offering some kind of payment – in cash or in kind – with no expectation that people should work for free in order to buy their way into heaven.
Finally, point 10:
Joining a church is a life lesson in how to deal with assholes without retaliating, dehumanizing or running away (in the desperate hope of not becoming an asshole).
OK. Now I’m back to the full lips-turned-inside-out grimace. It’s really, really dangerous to tell people they have to learn to live with assholes without retaliating or running away. I realise Pastor Yadav is probably thinking of eccentric members of his congregation whose behaviour elicits Angela Merkel level eye-rolls. But, when we start telling women, in particular, that it’s a good thing to learn to live with an asshole, we end up with dead women.
Not all assholes are harmless. I’d venture to say that most aren’t. Assholes tend to be either psychologically or physically abusive, or both. We should be running away from the assholes in our lives at great speed. We should be encouraging and supporting legal retaliation where appropriate. And, while I’m generally opposed to dehumanising anyone, it’s a fact that some of the worst assholes (I’m talking narcissists and psychopaths here) are really just empty human shells who walk like aliens among us.
I think it’s incredibly healthy – often life-saving – to recognise that some people just aren’t functionally human. This was a hard and painful lesson for me. But, understanding this brutal fact is crucial for processing how and why you, or someone you love, has been abused. And running away – ceasing all contact if at all possible – is absolutely the best method for dealing with such people in a way that doesn’t compromise your own humanity.
When someone writes the kind of list composed by Pastor Yadav, what they meant, and what someone reads into it may be two very different things. I’ve obviously read the pastor’s post in a way he didn’t mean for it to be interpreted. I’m very grateful that he has allowed me to voice my contrarian thoughts. My Christian friend clearly wasn’t triggered by the pastor’s words in the same way that I was. It’s really important to understand that I haven’t written this as a criticism of Pastor Yadav, or my friend, but with a desire to explore how meaning is created in the space between writer and reader.
In my (admittedly atheist) view, when the church is envisaged as an institution that is an island or a refuge, it is burning bridges, not building them. You can’t change the world from a desert island. Strong people don’t live in conclaves.
It seems to me that, effective, liberal, world-changing churches emerge when they exist as a part of a wider, diverse network of individuals and institutions who are trying to make the world better – even if, sometimes, they look at the world (or Facebook posts) very differently. I want to be a part of that kind of network.
Comments on this blog are moderated. You’re welcome to comment on the issues discussed in this post, but if there are any comments which personally attack Pastor Yadav will not be approved. This is a discussion, not an inquisition.
Melbourne emergency doctor, Stephen Parnis, has become something of a social media celebrity during the COVID-19, pandemic. Tweeting about his direct experience with COVID patients and encouraging people to get vaccinated, Dr Parnis has emerged as the embodiment of the heroic medicos and nurses whose work deserves greater respect and recognition. I don’t want to take any of that away from him.
People aren’t either all “good” or all “bad”. It’s quite possible to be “heroic” in one aspect of your life or profession, and just plain wrong in others. And, when you’ve been raised on a social media pedestal, I assume it comes as a bit of a shock when a single, ill-considered tweet knocks you off your perch.
This week, Dr Parnis, symbolic hero of the pandemic, was told he was just plain wrong about the subject of faith and power – and spat the dummy. I doubt what follows will cause him to reflect on why his critics were right, and he was wrong, but I’m going to write it anyway.
Here’s what happened.
In the wake of Dominic Perrottet replacing Gladys Berejiklian as NSW Premier, Dr Parnis vented his frustration that people were making an issue of Perrottet’s devout Catholicism. Responding to an ABC article which referred to Perrottet as a “conservative Catholic”, Parnis tweeted:
“I can’t believe we’re back here. Assess any MP on their politics & policies, rather than in their religious beliefs.”
Mega-researcher, Ronni Salt was quick to respond:
Oh for god’s sake. Stop it. Just stop this male focused, privileged garbage I am so sick of men who’ve never had their bodies and their lives smashed and governed by organised religion – I’m so sick of their privileged take on this You’re not the one whose liberty is affected.
How fucking dare you. How dare you sit up there on your privileged hill of male superiority and tell women not to discuss powerful men’s religion. How. Fucking. Dare. You. Powerful religious men use their religion to undermine the rights of women every day. Just shut up.
Instead of trying to understand why his tweet had elicited such an impassioned response, Parnis dug in. He called Salt’s criticism an “ad hominem” attack and referred to the tsunami of responses (mainly from women) that supported her comments as “poison”. Then, in a fit of pique, he announced his (temporary) departure from Twitter, tweeting:
“Time to leave this cesspit behind for a while.”
The inference, of course, is that the people (mainly women) who criticised him were sewer-dwellers, swimming in shit and flinging it indiscriminately at the nice, educated, white male doctor. The doctor who, until then, had been basking in the (not entirely undeserved) adoration of a grateful public.
What counted to Dr Parnis was that he was offended and aggrieved. He did not give one moment’s thought to the women who were offended and aggrieved by him. They didn’t count. They were the denizens of the cesspit – literally covered in shit. Parnis, believed he was right, and he had no interest whatsoever in listening to anything that challenged his view.
It’s a stance I’ve become very familiar with. As a professional freelance researcher, I’ve closely examined the arguments of those who oppose abortion, voluntary assisted dying, school chaplaincy, and marriage equality. I recognised the arrogance, the sense of entitlement to due deference, and I recognised the source.
Parnis, no doubt, was also upset by my contribution to the discussion.
“Why didn’t you disclose the fact you were arguing as a fellow committed Catholic? Why don’t you disclose this when you’re arguing against VAD [voluntary assisted dying]? It *matters* because, truth is, no matter what safeguards were in place nor how effective you’d still oppose it because of your faith.”
Before Dr Parnis became a Twitter hero, I knew him as a passionate advocate against voluntary assisted dying. And, because I know that most people who oppose VAD do so for religious reasons, I had done some research.
Dr Parnis works at St Vincent’s hospital, a Catholic institution devoted to bringing “God’s love to those in need through the healing ministry of Jesus.“
In 2018, Dr Parnis and his associate, Dr Natasha Michael, delivered the Rerum Novarum Oration at the Australian Catholic University. The Oration was called, “Widening the Door of Hope, A Response to the Victorian Assisted Dying Legislation”.
A “cradle Catholic”, Dr Parnis was educated by Jesuits. He remains an active supporter of his alma-mater, even sitting on the school’s Foundation Board. He is also active in his local Catholic church.
I had to go looking for that information. When Dr Parnis appears in the newspapers, on radio, or in parliamentary briefings and rails against voluntary assisted dying, he relies on his credibility as a doctor, never disclosing that the fundamental reason for his opposition is his deep, Catholic faith. Just so, when he suggested that Premier Perrottet should not be judged on his religious beliefs, he failed to disclose that he was speaking as a fellow Catholic and political activist. People who only knew him as “hero doctor” were entitled to know that.
Parnis would undoubtedly argue that, regardless of his faith, his arguments about voluntary assisted dying rely on evidence that it poses a danger to vulnerable groups. He would argue that his Catholicism is irrelevant precisely because he never brings his religion into it; he’s not quoting the Bible in his arguments. Similarly, he suggests that Perrottet’s faith is a private matter; that it’s insulting to suggest the new Premier’s beliefs would compromise his ability to work in the best interests of the people of NSW.
I’ve looked at the kind of evidence Dr Parnis presents in his arguments against VAD. They’re similar to those I’ve addressed from Catholic Dr Megan Best – and they’re demonstrably wrong. They’ve been debunked time and again by government and judicial inquiries – and yet, like Dr Best, he continues to make them. I’ve searched for the origins of this propaganda – it emanates principally from Catholic sources, although you have to dig a bit to find that out.
What if – what IF – the premier of the state did the same thing? What if a political leader similarly used propaganda instead of expert evidence to make decisions because the propaganda aligned with his religious beliefs? What if a premier rejected women’s concerns in the same arrogant way that Dr Parnis did on Twitter this week? What if a premier’s religious world-view is impenetrable – nothing that contradicts the doctrine of the church can be entertained.
To his credit, Mr Perrottet has at least been honest in confessing that his Catholic beliefs influence his politics. And he’s shown it in his actions: he is well-known for opposing the decriminalisation of abortion during a debate in the NSW Parliament in 2019. (As someone wrote: This doesn’t mean you’re stopping abortions – just safe ones.) It’s also said that Mr Perrottet doesn’t believe in contraception (six kids testifies to that!), nor, according to Sam Dastyari, does he believe in masturbation (although one hopes he won’t seek to legislate against it or there’ll be a mass exodus to Queensland.)
Seriously, though, the question about whether someone’s position is genuinely based on credible research is answered by the following hypothetical question.
“If all your objections were proven to be baseless, would you change your position on this issue?”
I’ve said previously that if Dr Parnis and his colleagues were right – if voluntary assisted dying genuinely posed a real threat to vulnerable groups – I would change my position. And I have investigated, without bias, just about every argument emanating from the legislation’s religious opponents. I don’t “pooh-pooh” their claims – I go to source documents to try to try to verify them.
I can guarantee that regardless of the evidence, regardless of the safeguards, regardless of the content of the Bill, Dr Parnis would not change his position on VAD; and neither would Premier Perrottet change his position on issues relating to women’s reproductive rights.
And herein lies the problem. If a person with the power to fundamentally affect people’s lives and freedoms – let’s say, a physician or a politician – holds such intransigent views about some issues that they will not give countenance to any evidence that challenges their views and will not, under any circumstances, change their views on the basis of credible evidence, are they fit to hold a position of power?
Contrary to what Dr Parnis says, when it comes to power, faith matters, and it should be disclosed. Arguments rooted in moral convictions are rarely arguments based on an honest and rational assessment of evidence.
When Dr Parnis argues against voluntary assisted dying it’s as important to know that he is a devout Catholic, as it is to know the person insisting that climate change is a myth earns millions from coal mining, or the guy telling you that vaping is healthy, works for a tobacco company. Catholicism is a “vested interest.”
The fact that the Premier of NSW is a devout Catholic (although NOT Opus Dei, as has been widely rumoured) is genuinely cause for alarm for women who fear that legislative decisions about their lives and their bodies will not be made on the basis of credible evidence but on the basis of Catholic doctrine. Dr Parnis is so blind to his own bias, that he simply can’t imagine that we find men like him and Mr Perrottet terrifying – absolutely terrifying. These are privileged and powerful white men who hold their religious beliefs above all else – even if it is at the expense or our freedom, our autonomy, our welfare, or our own firmly held convictions. It is a deeply patriarchal view – father knows best – and every woman recognises the curdling fear in her stomach when she encounters it.
People like Premier Perrottet and Dr Parnis rely on their professional status to add credibility to their arguments. If you read or listen to Dr Parnis on VAD, you’re encouraged to think, “Well, he’s a doctor – he would know!” And, in the case of a politician, “Well, they have all the research at their fingertips – they should know!” They exploit the power and privilege of their positions to convince you that they’re right.
Let me show you how this works – and why disclosure matters.
In 2017, in the heat of the debate over marriage equality, an opinion piece, published widely in Fairfax newspapers, argued against gay marriage. The power of this piece was that it was by an author who asserted they were “liberal’ and “not religious.”
At this stage of the debate, the arguments advanced by the “Vote No” campaign were crumbling under the weight of serious, expert evidence. Arguments from the religious right were becoming hysterical and, frankly laughable: if this law was passed, children would be raised to be gay, polygamy was sure to follow, and people would be in a rush to marry their corgis. It was increasingly apparent that, hidden in the centre of this house of cards, was the only real argument against marriage equality – religious homophobia.
It was important for the “No” team not to be seen as religious bigots, so articles like this were, literally, a “god-send.”
“I am a thirty year old woman of liberal upbringing and no particular religious affiliation,” the author insisted.
But, I smelled a rat – or, perhaps, a church mouse? Who was this person who appeared out of nowhere claiming to have no religious basis for her argument against marriage equality? A little (okay, a lot!) of digging revealed she:
- was raised by two devoutly religious parents who held positions in a conservative church,
- attended at least one ministry trip with her father as an adult, and
- lived in a domestic partnership with the former leader of the Church of Scientology in Australia.
None of this information was disclosed in her article.
Like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz, the power of this piece was in the illusion. Its impact depended on what you didn’t know about the author. But, when I tore back the curtain, it was just another person, steeped in religious bigotry, with a deck full of trick cards. When the truth about the author is revealed, the sincerity and credibility of the article is compromised and it loses its power.
Here’s another example.
In July 2020, New Zealand journalist, Caralise Trayes, published an investigative book on voluntary assisted dying. The blurb from her book makes her sound lovely, ordinary, likeable, and trustworthy.
“Trayes is a full-time mum and part-time freelance writer from Hibiscus Coast, Auckland.”
Trayes describes herself and her motive in undertaking this investigation as follows:
“I’ve worked as a journalist for nearly 10 years with Fairfax Media, so I applied the journalistic approach in this hunt for truth.”
In her “hunt for the truth,” this intrepid journalist interviewed 20 people – 17 of whom opposed voluntary assisted dying. Her conclusion? Legalizing VAD in New Zealand was a very dangerous step.
In dozens of newspaper and media interviews, Ms Trayes represented herself as an unbiased investigative reporter, driven only by her quest to uncover “the truth.” In none of those interviews did she reveal that:
- she was an active member of a fundamentalist, charismatic Pentecostal church
- that her sister and brother-in-law are pastors of the church, and
- that in 2018, her church had vowed to “make an impact” on the VAD debate in New Zealand.
Ms Trayes book provided a powerful argument against voluntary assisted dying – until you discovered what the author had failed to disclose about herself. That is not an ad hominem attack. It is clear that the result of Ms Trayes’ “investigation” was a foregone conclusion. The fact that she had to hide that from her readers suggests she was well aware that the power of her argument depended entirely upon her deceit-by-omission.
So this is why, Dr Parnis’ and Mr Perrottet’s religious convictions are relevant to any issues of public importance on which their church holds firm, doctrinal positions.
In Matthew 17:20, Jesus says:
“… truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Religious zealots believe in their hearts that if only they produce sufficient propaganda, they can move the mountains of evidence that their religious positions are wrong, harmful, unfair and unfounded in fact. They kid themselves that they are doing the right thing. But they are not honest brokers. That doesn’t mean that Christians, or people of other faiths, can’t be great politicians or doctors or judges etc. But it does require that they are able to separate what they might (or might not) choose for themselves, from what mainstream evidence suggests best serves the people whose welfare defends on them.
I’m reminded of creation scientist, Kurt Wise, who holds a PhD in palaeontology from Harvard University. Better than most, Wise knows the overwhelming weight of scientific research supports evolution and discredits the creationists’ view. Yet Wise wrote:
“As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.”
If you’re a Prime Minister, a Premier, a palliative care physician or even that heroic Twitter MD, and you hold this kind of mindset on any issue relating to public health and welfare, I think your faith disqualifies you from holding a position of power.
If we’re to have faith in those in power, we have to be sure they aren’t using their power to force their faith upon us.
Life Summit is an event convened each year by Life Church, a pentecostal church in Brisbane. This month (September 2021) a guest speaker was Associate Professor Megan Best, a Research Associate with the Institute for Ethics and Society at the (Catholic) University of Notre Dame, Australia.
Dr Best, a palliative care doctor and medical ethicist, spoke on the topic of voluntary assisted dying. Her address to the Life Summit was live-streamed, which gave me the opportunity to access (and critique) Dr Best’s speech. Dr Best is an outspoken critic of voluntary assisted dying. She has worked as a palliative physician at Greenwich Hospital in NSW and is a board member of Spiritual Care, Australia. She has written previously about her view that those of us who don’t wish to suffer at the end of life simply don’t realise the spiritual benefits of suffering:
“For the Christian, suffering lies within the sphere of God’s sovereign rule as the creator and governor of our world. Indeed, the presence of sickness, decay and death is the result of his judgement on our rebellious world. In other words, although (like nearly everyone) Christians do not wish to suffer and do not enjoy suffering, we know that we experience suffering under the sovereign rule of God. Thus, suffering can function as God’s loving discipline designed to correct our ways.
… Sometimes suffering is a direct consequence of our sin … We are told that suffering can be for our good even when we don’t understand it.
… [We] acknowledge that if suffering is to be our experience then good will also emerge from it within the plans of God. We also know that suffering will be temporary and, from an eternal perspective, brief.
But the individualistic, secular public isn’t interested in the spiritual benefits of suffering, or in considering whether there might be a higher good than simply avoiding suffering at all costs.
We find ourselves, then, at an impasse. Christians accept that some degree of illness and disability is inevitable in a fallen world, while the secular community is determined to conquer illness and disability at any cost.”
Now you have some idea of Dr Best’s position, let’s look at some of the arguments she made in her address to Life Church.
Period of Eligibility
Dr Best complains that:
“… laws around Australia, and those proposed for New South Wales, allow euthanasia six or 12 months before death is expected. Now, no one is actively dying when they have an expected six months to live.”
But, she does not explain (and she would know this) that the laws take into account the fact that getting assessed for VAD takes time – particularly for people in regional areas. Nor does she explain (and she would know this), that receiving a prescription for the lethal medication doesn’t mean that you immediately (or ever) have that script filled, nor that you immediately take the medication. The eligibility time period accounts for the fact that terminally ill people may have:
- limited energy resources,
- difficulty accessing doctors willing to assist them with their application,
- live in remote or regional areas, and
- may have to overcome obstacles like obstructive hospitals or palliative care facilities.
It also recognises the palliative effect of providing people with a sense of control in that last 6-12 months of their lives. A patient approved for VAD may never take the drug, but knowing they can, if they need it, can provide tremendous comfort.
Lack of Palliative Care
Dr Best suggests that people are forced to choose VAD because of a lack of palliative care:
“We know that half the people who would benefit from palliative care currently have access to it. Is this a path we want to take in New South Wales, putting our sick in a position when they have to choose euthanasia?”
There’s no doubt we need better palliative care in this country – particularly in regional areas. But, here’s the thing. The latest statistics from Victoria show that of those who applied for VAD in the period 19 June 2019 to 30 June 2021, 82.2% (740) were currently receiving palliative care, while a further 1.6 per cent (14) had previously received palliative care.
As the official Victorian Government report says:
“It demonstrates that most applicants applying for voluntary assisted dying are currently accessing palliative care services while completing the voluntary assisted dying application process.”
The same argument was made in the United States, yet we see similar figures (from 2018) there. 90.9 per cent of Oregonians and 88 per cent of applicants from Washington State who used their states’ Death with Dignity Law were enrolled in hospice care.
Similarly, in 2012, 82.8 per cent of recipients of Canada’s Medical Aid in Dying (MAID) received palliative care while 88.5 per cent had access to the service, if they had wanted to avail themselves of it.
All of this official evidence is available to Dr Best – but it doesn’t suit her argument.
Community Support for VAD
Dr Best questions the fact that opinion polls have consistently found around 80 per cent of Australians want voluntary assisted dying to be legalised. In 2019, a fact check by Emeritus Professor of Nursing, Colleen Cartwright and Charles Douglas, a senior lecturer in Clinical Ethics and Health Law, looked at 10 polls conducted in Australia between 2007 and 2016. Professor Cartwright says:
“[the] statement that 80% of Australians and up to 70% of Catholics and Anglicans support euthanasia laws is backed up by a number of surveys – but not all.”
But she explains that those polls which showed less support were those in which “terminal illness” was not stated as the criteria.
Similarly, Charles Douglas says the claim that 80 per cent of Australians presents a generally accurate summary of the spread of opinion on assisted death. So, despite consistent polling results which have been scrupulously checked for accuracy and methodological integrity, Dr Best says:
“A poll in Queensland last month found public support was 41%. A recent poll in New Zealand found that when the public was given more information, support for euthanasia fell to 21%.”
It’s telling that Dr Best doesn’t name these polls. Not surprisingly, the Queensland poll was commissioned by Cherish Life, a pro-life organisation, the Australian Christian Lobby and HOPE (an anti-VAD lobby group). In this poll, Voluntary Assisted Dying, is referred to, pejoratively, as Assisted Suicide. I’ll leave you to look at the leading questions in this survey.
In fact, 41 per cent of those surveyed weren’t responding to a question about whether they supported the legalization of VAD, they were responding to a question about whether they thought it should be a “priority”. 30 per cent didn’t say they didn’t support VAD, they responded to the proposition that it shouldn’t be rushed and that the safeguards needed to be right.
Responding to this question, 18 per cent felt more palliative care services needed to be put in place first. Only 11 per cent of the respondents to this highly biased poll said “Don’t proceed at all.”
The claim relating to support in New Zealand being as low as 21 per cent is remarkable given that, in their 2020 referendum, 66 per cent voted “Yes” to the legislation after a long and detailed public debate during which the religious right did their damnedest to “educate” the public.
Safeguards are Impossible
“It’s not possible to write a law that can’t be abused,” says Dr Best. And she’s right. Any law can be abused, but that’s not a reason not to have them! Based on the minuscule number of court cases and convictions worldwide, the record shows that laws related to voluntary assisted dying are the least likely to be abused. Yet, Dr Best insists:
“We have documented evidence from the jurisdictions where euthanasia has been legalized that it is not possible to legislate safely for euthanasia.”
That’s simply not true. If the safeguards in jurisdictions where VAD is legal were routinely being breached we would see a rash of court cases and convictions. We would, undoubtedly see voters clamouring to have the legislation overturned. And we would see a noticeable drop in the public’s trust in the medical profession.
It’s true, there have, very rarely, been accusations pointed at doctors in Belgium and the Netherlands, but on the rare occasion these matters go to court (since VAD was legalised), the doctors have been acquitted. It’s worth noting that issues being raised and going to court means that the checks and balances – the safeguards – are working; that the system is transparent enough to identify cases which may not have been carried out to the letter of the law.
Statista (an international company which provides data and statistics to businesses), records statistics on public trust in healthcare in countries throughout the world. In 2021, The Netherlands (which gets the bulk of criticism about its euthanasia laws) ranks third in the world with 80 per cent trust, above Australia (8th) at 75 per cent. The global average is 66 per cent.
A 2016 poll, conducted by academics, showed 88 per cent of Dutch people support The Netherlands’ euthanasia law.
A 2019 article from Dutch News confirms 87 per cent support. It beggars belief that there would be such overwhelming support for a health system which was actively killing patients from vulnerable groups without their consent. There would be a national outcry!
In 2011, there was a referendum in Zurich as to whether voluntary assisted dying (VAD) should be banned. 85 per cent voted against the suggestion. The good citizens of Zurich had 69 years to consider the pros and cons of VAD – it’s been legal in Switzerland since 1942.
Further, the Swiss law is the most permissive in the world, and has virtually no “safeguards” in terms of criteria. Yet voluntary assisted dying deaths are not spiralling out of control in Switzerland. In fact, they consistently represent just under 2 per cent of that country’s deaths.
Oregon legalised voluntary assisted dying in 1997. An academic study in 2013 found that while only 60 per cent of Oregon voters voted “Yes” in the 1997 referendum, support in the intervening 15 years had grown to 80 per cent. This is not a sign of a law that’s failing to safe-guard patients.
Euthanasia “Without Consent”
Dr Best associates the legalisation of VAD with the proliferation of what we call LAWER deaths – life ending acts without explicit request. She says:
“1000 people a year in Holland, are given euthanasia without their knowledge or consent.”
It sounds horrifying. But, is it true? Well, yes … but, mostly, no. In 2014, Kenneth Chambaere, Interdisciplinary Professor of Public Health, Sociology & Ethics of the End of Life at the End-of-Life Care Research Group, and others, looked at these “life ending acts without explicit request” in The Netherlands. Chambaere et al found that:
“In most cases (87.9%), physicians labelled their acts in terms of symptom treatment rather than in terms of ending life.”
Ironically, providing symptom relief, even if it hastens death, is an intervention that Dr Best enthusiastically defends and supports in her speech.
Chambaere et al found that none of the physicians considered the intervention they had performed was “euthanasia”. And, in 24 per cent of cases, physicians said patients had previously discussed with them their wish for an assisted death. (In other cases, the doctors would almost certainly have discussed the matter with the family.) What Dr Best doesn’t tell her audience – and she will know this – is that “life ending acts without explicit request” occur in every country, not just those that have legalised VAD.
Nor does she mention that, in countries and jurisdictions where VAD is legalised, these interventions decline, not increase, because patients have the option to make their request formally, access VAD before they become incompetent, and, in some countries like The Netherlands, provide their consent in a Living Will or Advance Health Directive. My friend, statistician, Neil Francis, has demonstrated this for Netherlands and Belgium here:
If Dr Best is outraged by these kinds of deaths, she should support VAD!
Eligibility Criteria for VAD will be ‘Inevitably’ Expanded
Megan Best claims the law in The Netherlands has “been expanded”. Again, this is simply not true. In 2017 the ABC asked a group of legal experts to fact check this claim. They found it was entirely unsubstantiated.
The ABC article confirms:
“Despite [a] few changes, legal experts contacted by Fact Check agreed there was no evidence of restrictions being increasingly loosened.”
After looking at the laws, world-wide, Cameron Stewart, a Professor of Health, Law and Ethics with the Sydney Law School, said:
“There’s no evidence at all of a slippery slope in any of the American jurisdictions.”
Stewart acknowledged there had been some changes to age restrictions in Europe but also said:
“… in terms of it being a slippery slope, I think the evidence there is really questionable”.
Professor Jocelyn Downie, an international health law expert, said:
“I can’t think of a jurisdiction that expanded who can administer the drug and when. The bottom line is that we have not seen evidence of the slippery slope and there is no good reason to believe that the experience on that front would be any different in Australia.”
Yet, Best can’t help throwing a red herring into the argument:
“Some people have discussed the need to allow euthanasia for dementia patients.”
Yes! Yes they have. Some people have discussed making it available for people who are tired of life. Some people even advocate anyone over 18 should have access to the law. But the fact that “some people” are discussing something, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.
If – and this seems highly unlikely – any change is made to these laws, it will only be after exhaustive discussion, research, and consideration of suitable safeguards. Our parliaments will have to debate it and vote as a majority to change the resolution – and answer to their constituents. I’m sure there are people in Oregon who would like their Dying with Dignity law to be available to people with dementia. But, after 24 years there has been no expansion to the Oregon law.
Throwing in another red herring, Dr Best suggests that legalising VAD will lead to an increase in suicide.
“… when governments sanction suicide as a solution to despair, bypassing euthanasia bills, the unassisted suicide rate goes up”
This is just not true. This ridiculous contention comes from a very flawed paper by anti-VAD Dutch doctor, and religious ethicist, Theo Boer and it’s frequently repeated by Australian Catholic bio-ethicist, Margaret Somerville. This outrageous falsehood has been forensically examined and debunked by Neil Francis, from the website “Dying for Choice”. Francis is not the only one who has found Professor Somerville’s attention to evidence and facts often wanting. After she appeared as an “expert witness” in an Iowa District Court case the court rejected her testimony, determining that the professor:
“…specifically eschews empirical research and methods of logical reasoning in favour of ‘moral intuition.’ She has no training in empirical research…”
The same could be said of Dr Best. Elsewhere, Neil Francis has found Dr Best expounding information from an academic paper which says the exact opposite of what she claims. But, of course, its findings didn’t suit her anti-VAD narrative.
Professor Somerville points to a high rate of suicide in Belgium. But, as Francis points out, she ignores a similarly high rate in Lithuania where VAD is not legal. Nor does she acknowledge that suicide rates for The Netherlands and Switzerland are below the European average. And, as Francis points out, even if the suicide rate in a jurisdiction does increase after the introduction of VAD, that doesn’t mean there’s a correlation between the two. Curiously, Somerville never factors in a far more likely correlation – the unemployment rate. Oregon does have an issue with suicide. But, says Francis:
“Oregon was among the top ten states for 12 of 16 years immediately prior to the DWDA [Oregon’s VAD legislation], but for only 4 of now 18 years since.”
The claim that the suicide rate is linked to VAD is untenable. As Francis says:
“In statistical terms, variance in the Dutch unemployment rate alone between 1960 and 2015 explains most (80%) of the variance in the Dutch general suicide rate.”
Doctors Not Signing On to Participate
Dr Best says VAD is poorly supported by the medical community – only 15 per cent of Victorian doctors have signed up to participate in VAD.
We know from the experience in Oregon that uncertainty about the safeguards for physicians and a whole lot of fear-mongering by the religious lobby tends to make physicians reluctant to sign up when these laws are first introduced. But, over time, as doctors become more confident with the law, the number of providers increase.
This is exactly what’s happening in Victoria. The number of doctors who completed the training increased by 15 per cent in the first six months. Originally there were 422 doctors registered in the program, now there are 511 – an increase of 22 per cent in just a year.
Applicants for VAD not in Pain
Dr Best says, correctly, that pain is not the major motivation for people requesting voluntary assisted dying. That is not to say it is never a factor, but it is the symptom that is most easily controlled at the end of life. This isn’t in contention. But, not being in pain doesn’t mean you have no distressing physical symptoms, and psychological and existential pain are also very real.
It’s important to understand that, as you die, it’s unlikely to be one thing that causes your suffering – but a tsunami of symptoms that make your life unbearable.
Dr Rodney Syme has explained some of the cascading symptoms that may occur at the end of life, not all of which can be controlled. Patients may experience not just one, but a combination of these symptoms at the end of life:
- physical pain
- cachexia – extreme weight loss
- difficulty swallowing – unable to even swallow your own saliva
- coughing and fear of choking
- nausea vomiting
- diarrhoea and/or constipation
- faecal incontinence
- discharge, bleeding, odor
Let’s see what this looks like in a real person. Rachael Ryan describes 63-year-old Rudi Dobron’s death from laryngeal cancer: A tracheostomy robbed Rudi of his ability to speak and, later, caused him great difficulty in swallowing. He suffered from mouth ulcers, constipation, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and pneumonia. His pain was controlled by liquid morphine.
Towards the end he had extreme difficulty swallowing even fluids, he suffered shortness of breath, and significant loss of weight and energy. His suffering was unbearable and unrelievable. The only avenue that was open to him was to refuse food and water.
It took Rudi Dobron 47 days to die. Yet, Dr Best’s response to patients in this predicament is:
“While Christians can understand what we may learn through suffering, such attitudes are not widespread. In a society that’s forgotten the meaning of suffering is understandably a lack of willingness to endure.” [My emphasis]
Think about that. A lack of willingness to endure.
Who is Heartless?
Yet, Dr Best doesn’t want us to think she’s heartless.
“It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I do. I don’t oppose euthanasia because I don’t care.”
Instead, she casts those of us who campaign for voluntary assisted dying as “the bad guys”:
“The whole euthanasia campaign is being driven by people who want control and don’t care what happens to vulnerable people.” [My emphasis]
Well, yeah! I want control over my own life and death, and I want the choice to determine when, and where and how I die if I am suffering from a terminal illness. But, I don’t want that at the expense of vulnerable people.
I have spent the last 10 years researching every claim I can find about the plight of vulnerable people under VAD laws and in every single case I’ve been able to determine that the claims are unsubstantiated, untrue, and frequently malicious propaganda.
Dr Best thinks it’s entirely appropriate for her religious beliefs to be prioritised over my desire for autonomy.
“As Christians, we know that we live in a fallen world where suffering is inevitable that there is a better world to come when all tears will be wiped away. And deep down we all know that it is wrong to kill the innocent, even when they ask us to.”
In fact, nobody is asking Dr Best to kill anyone. All we are asking is that she, and those who think like her, respect the fact that the vast majority of Australians don’t share their views.
Why should the trajectory of my life be determined by Dr Best’s religious convictions? Or the convictions of some equally religious member of parliament? I respect their right to choose not to have VAD, or not to be an active participant as a medical practitioner. But surely my strongly held conviction that I should have the choice not to suffer at the end of life must equally be respected – especially given the overwhelming evidence that the freedom to make that choices endangers no-one else.
“Pro-life” advocates like Dr Best seem to think that people who advocate for VAD simply disregard their claims about the ‘dangers’ to the wider population. That is so incredibly far from the truth.
I never assume that claims made by people like Dr Best are untrue. My response is always, “Could that be right?” And then I go to the very best, most reliable sources I can find: academic papers, government statistics, medical reports (the annual reports from the Netherlands are comprehensive and all in the public domain), interviews with the family and friends of the patient, or the patient themselves, judicial inquiries, etc. I never look for evidence to prove I’m right. I always look for evidence to point me towards the truth. Because if it were true that my freedom to choose voluntary assisted dying really meant that elderly people, Indigenous people, disabled people and people with dementia were going to be put in danger, I would not support it.
If all the horror stories told by organisations like Catholic anti-VAD lobby group, HOPE, and websites like BioEdge (run by Opus Dei member Michael Cook) and Defend Human Life! (a one-man show run by serial propagandist, Richard Egan), were true, I would be horrified. But I’ve checked them – pretty much all of them over the past decade – and they’re just not true (or, often, half-true, with only the details that serve their argument included).
Dr Best urges those who have listened to her Life Summit speech to contact their local MP and urge them not to vote for the forthcoming VAD Bill in NSW. But, she is asking them to act based on a raft of information that is demonstrably untrue. You have to ask, “Is that moral? Is that ethical? Does that reflect Christian values? And, does it show any respect for those patients of Dr Best who face unrelievable suffering at the end of their life?”
What kind of Christianity is this? I’m no Christian, but somehow I can’t imagine Jesus looking over someone suffering unrelievably at the end of their life, with no prospect of recovery, and berating them for their “lack of willingness to endure.”
There are 5.2 million people in Queensland. They are people of different races, different religions (or no religion), different political views, different educational achievements, professional skills, and different socio-economic status. But, we Queenslanders have one important thing in common: one day, each and every one of us 5.2 million people, is going to die.
And, of those Queenslanders who are eligible to vote, four out of every five want the right to choose the time and manner of their death should they be afflicted with a terminal illness or neuro-degenerative disease.
That right will be granted to Queenslanders this week, but not without a fight; a battle against misinformation and propaganda, and against our own political representatives who wilfully chose to ignore the expert evidence presented to them and voted against the clearly expressed views of the majority of their constituents.
I followed the debate in the Queensland parliament closely, and found myself thinking, “Who are these politicians raising ‘concerns’ about voluntary assisted dying that have been repeatedly debunked?”
I’m a professional researcher with modest resources. But, over the last 10 years I’ve investigated almost every claim about “slippery slopes” and “vulnerable groups” and hundreds of “horror stories” about people being euthanised “against their will.” I’ve found 99.99 per cent of them to be completely unfounded and 99.99 per cent of them emanating from religious sources.
Religious lobbyists would be very wrong to suggest that we, similarly, reject their arguments out of hand. We don’t. We look at each and every claim, statistic, and case study. We chase down academic papers, medical and government reports, police and judicial inquiries, and first-hand accounts by the people who have used VAD, their families and their doctors.
We don’t just “google” sites that agree with us. We look at each and every claim and ask, “Could this be true?” And we set out, honestly, and without preconception, to establish the truth.
Why? Because advocates of VAD have absolutely no interest in putting vulnerable people at risk, or allowing doctors to maliciously murder patients against their will, or any of the other horrible scenarios suggested in the reams of propaganda put out by religious astro-turf organisations. If there are issues, we want to know about them and address them. But, in almost every case, what we find are bodgy statistics, half-truths, stories ripped from their context, and straight out, bald-faced lies.
Nobody summarises this better than Emeritus Professor of Law, John Griffiths who said in his book Euthanasia and the Law in Europe:
“Imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation, ideological ipsedixitism, and downright lying and slander (not to speak of bad manners) have taken the place of careful analysis of the problem and consideration of the Dutch evidence.”
Ipsedixisitism – don’t you love it?
And yet, the vast majority of LNP politicians (and some members of the ALP) this week, repeated this kind of propaganda as if it were true. Did they approach their jobs in good faith?
Surely politicians, who have much better resources than I, have access to the parliamentary library, to expert researchers, and to the many academic, government and judicial inquiries which have determined, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that voluntary assisted dying laws are safe and pose no threat to vulnerable groups.
OK. I accept there are a range of views about voluntary assisted dying. But politicians aren’t elected to vote on ‘views’ – they’re elected to vote on hard evidence from credible sources, and in accordance with the reasonable desires of their constituents.
The safety of VAD laws is not contested – despite what religious propaganda may ask you to believe. There should have been no politicians standing up in parliament this week raising “concerns” about the safety of the carefully drafted Queensland VAD Bill. There aren’t any legitimate concerns.
Really! This kind of legislation has been tried and tested all over the world with none of the apocalyptic results predicted (or recounted) by opponents. We know it works and the laws drafted in Australia are the most restrictive anywhere in the world.
The only legitimate objection politicians could possibly have had to the Queensland Bill is their belief that life is sacred and that suffering provides an opportunity for death-bed conversion and salvation.
The question is, is it legitimate for a politician to inflict their religious convictions on to constituents who do not share their views?
Imagine if a politician was considering whether a bridge should be built in her electorate and she held a firm view about where it should be located – perhaps somewhere convenient to where she lived. In this case, expert opinions would be sought, engineers reports ordered and town-planners consulted. Of course, there would also be a public consultation process.
Imagine if the expert reports determined that the politician’s preferred location was completely unsuitable – and that 80 per cent of her electorate wanted the bridge located at the site suggested by the experts. It would be politically judicious for the politician to put aside her personal preference (and graciously accept she was wrong).
But, if, instead, she went to parliament and dismissed the expert reports, raised “concerns” written by parties with a vested interest in locating the bridge at her preferred location, and made verifiably false allegations about the safety of the site preferred by experts, she would be in egregious breach of her ethical responsibilities.
Yet, that is exactly what happened in the Queensland parliament this week. Politicians are entrusted with representing the reasonable views of their electorate. And yet, repeatedly, we saw politicians standing up and blatantly betraying the people they were elected to represent.
It should be no surprise to anyone that the majority of those who said “No” to Queensland’s voluntary assisted dying bill were from the LNP. But this was no political objection. The vast majority of politicians who opposed the bill have firmly held, conservative, religious views which they privileged above the wants and needs of their constituents.
As politicians discussed their voting intentions this week, I did some investigation about the reasons behind those “No” votes.
Jarrod Bleijie (LNP – Kawana) said he was voting against the Bill because he worried about children accessing the life-ending medication by accident. This has never happened, ever, anywhere in the world. Mr Bleijie has made no complaints about pharmacies dispensing any number of drugs that might (conceivably) fall into the hands of children, nor of palliative care practitioners bringing potentially lethal medications into the residences of those who choose to die at home. But dig a little and you will find that Mr Bleijie is an elder of the Kawana Waters Uniting Church. He was formerly a director of Mercy Ships – a controversial Christian missionary group that grew out of the evangelical Youth With a Mission. To his credit, Mr Bleijie, is at least honest about where his alliances lie. “I am not bashful about declaring that I am a practising Christian,” he boasted in his maiden speech.
Another ‘honest’ LNP politician was Andrew Powell MP (LNP Glasshouse Mountains) who confessed what his colleagues wouldn’t:
“My vote doesn’t reflect my electorate’s views – Jesus guides the way I operate.”
Jon Krause MP (LNP – Scenic Rim) said he would vote “No” because he thinks the legislation is too “risky”. It’s clearly not. So what else explains his decision? Mr Krause didn’t disclose his family’s very close association with the Lutheran Church.
“No” voter, Tim Mander MP (LNP – Everton), who used all the debunked talking points against VAD, is a Christian and bible college graduate and formerly CEO of Scripture Union Queensland.
Jim McDonald MP (LNP – Lockyer) decided that, although 82 per cent of his constituents want the right to choose VAD, he is happy for them to die slowly, (and not necessarily without pain or suffering), under palliative sedation. This is a method by which doctors provide very strong drugs to patients, knowing they are very likely to kill them eventually, but consoling themselves that this “isn’t their intention.”
Similarly, Pat Weir (LNP – Condamine) betrayed 79 per cent of his electorate when he flagged his intent to vote “No” – and suggested, falsely, that two-thirds of his electorate supported his stance. In fact, credible polling shows that two-thirds of his electorate “strongly agree” that VAD should be legal. Mr Weir is a Catholic.
So, too, is Linus Power (ALP – Logan) who said he was concerned that VAD might be used by people who were suffering intolerably from symptoms other than pain. Pain is the most manageable end-of-life symptom – although not always manageable. End-of-life suffering occurs from a tsunami of physical and psychological symptoms which are no less distressing, whether or not pain is included. And who is Mr Power to determine whether someone’s suffering must be endured because pain may not be the major issue? It seems far more likely that it was Mr Power’s Catholic convictions about the sanctity of life – and suffering – that directed his vote.
Another “No” vote from the ALP came from Joe Kelly (ALP – Greenslopes), a graduate of Ignatius Park (Catholic) College in Townsville. Mr Kelly’s stated concern with the bill was that it puts nurses in danger of criminal conviction. This has never happened – anywhere. I imagine Mr Kelly’s objection came as quite a surprise to the more than 2,000 members of Nurses Supporting Voluntary Assisted Dying, a group run by Queensland nurse, Fiona Jacobs.
The legislation, of course, was expertly framed by the Queensland Law Reform Commission who would never have recommended legislation with that kind of glaring loophole. But, of course, a politician can’t just state baldly that he’s really uncomfortable voting against the Vatican’s Evangelium Vitae – even if that Papal encyclical means nothing at all to the vast majority of the constituents he represents.
Then there is Dan Purdie MP (LNP – Ninderry) who, coyly, referred to his school in his maiden speech without actually mentioning its name. Why? Did Mr Purdie envisage that one day he’d be required to choose between his electorate and his religion and that some snoopy researcher might find out he was a Catholic – educated at Padua (Catholic) College?
Of course, Mr Purdie didn’t ‘fess up that his objection to the Bill was religious. Instead, he simply ticked off all the Catholic propaganda talking points which have been repeatedly debunked and disproven. It’s not just misleading – it’s really lazy to accept information that accords with your preconceptions at face value, while rejecting expert evidence that shows incontrovertibly that your preconceptions are wrong. At least be honest and say, “On this issue, I’m voting with the Pope, not the people.”
I won’t belabour this further by listing every religious LNP vote. It’s not always apparent what religious affiliations politicians have, but I’d happily bet the vast majority of LNP politicians who voted against the bill either did so on religious grounds or because they were muscled by the LNP’s Christian right faction.
Is the LNP a political party or a theocratic movement? And if their aim is theocracy, why not be open about it?
Queenslanders deserve better. Queensland Catholics and other Christians deserve better! These politicians did not even represent their views. The majority of Australian Catholics and Christians support VAD and you can see that broken down by electorate in Neil Francis’ excellent statical analysis of the 2019 Vote Compass survey here. This survey asked constituents to say to what extent they agreed with the statement: “Terminally ill patients should be able to end their own lives with medical assistance.” [Scroll down to the third (main) table and click on the name of the electorate for detailed results.]
As Neil reports:
“Those supporting VAD laws include nearly four out of five Catholics (78%) as well as most Anglicans (84%) and other non-Christian faiths (82%). Among voters with no religion, there was almost universal support (95%).”
Please don’t think I’m saying religious politicians have no place in parliament. There is absolutely no reason why people of faith shouldn’t hold political office – providing they accept that decisions should be evidence-based and guided by the reasonable wishes of the majority of their constituents. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was raised Catholic but voted based on the evidence and the overwhelming agreement of the people of Queensland.
But, I see no difference between a politician who answers to the Vatican or some other church, and a politician with an allegiance to a foreign power, or to some shonky real estate developer. It’s true that (on this issue at least) Queensland politicians weren’t betraying their constituents for a nice little beachfront unit after they retire. But they were selling their constituents out because they fear losing the right to reside on a prime piece of real estate in the hereafter. If that is the basis on which a politician makes decisions, they are not fit for office.
Despite the religious shenanigans this week, Queensland’s VAD bill will pass – almost certainly without any of the vexatious amendments. But, I hope that when casting their votes at the next election, Queensland voters will consider the LNP’s (and some ALP members’) shameful betrayal of their constituents.
Since vaccinations for COVID-19 became widely available, there has been a flood of stories about anti-vaxxers and COVID conspiracy theorists dying of the disease they so passionately believed was a ‘hoax’. There is inevitably some degree of schadenfreude about these deaths, but it’s important to remember these are real people, with friends and family who love them. No matter how vehemently we might disagree with their politics, religion or beliefs about COVID-19 and vaccinations – we should never be glad about someone dying. In fact, we should be doing everything we can to prevent it.
Safe, thoroughly tested, vaccines are now widely available. Yet, a significant number of people are still refusing to have them. Unvaccinated people are nearly 30 times more likely to be hospitalised by COVID-19. In the United States, only about 1.1 per cent of COVID-19 deaths can be attributed to people who were either partially or fully vaccinated.
It is true that a COVID-19 vaccination will not necessarily stop you from contracting the virus – the same is true for flu vaccinations which are widely accepted. But results show that, if you are vaccinated, you are far less likely to become extremely ill, require hospitalisation, or die.
Millions of people have now been vaccinated with no ill effects, but people are still dying unnecessarily.
COVID-19 cannot be prevented or cured by alternative treatments. There are solid, scientific reasons why vitamins, hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin won’t work. People who have been persuaded by these arguments are dying unnecessarily.
These are not ‘idiots’ or people of no consequence. Their deaths should not be dismissed. These are doctors, lawyers, athletes, community workers, politicians, broadcasters, singers, musicians, and athletes – many of them were healthy, young people with bright futures ahead of them.
Their grieving families are now left with the consequences of their loved-ones’ mistaken belief that they knew more than the vast majority of the world’s medical and scientific community; that they were somehow smarter than the experts – despite having none of the specialist training of the scientists who assure us that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Tragically, many found it’s too late to discover you’re wrong when the nurse is intubating you.
Jodi Doering, an emergency room nurse from South Dakota, said that, even as they are dying, patients who refused vaccines and didn’t believe the virus was dangerous are screaming for some kind of magic (unproven, untested) medicine to cure them. It doesn’t exist. Doering says:
“Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening, it’s not real.”
But it is happening – repeatedly. Perhaps, some who are sitting on the fence, might read a news report about an anti-vaxxer or conspiracy theorist who has died of COVID-19 and be persuaded to seek out a vaccination. But, I wondered how much more powerful it would be if all (or, at least, many) of these reports were compiled into an A-Z of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who gambled with their lives – and lost.
A – H Scott Apley, American City Councillor, 45
Republican city councillor, H Scott Apley, was anti-mask, anti-vax and anti-lockdown. He enjoyed mocking public health messages on Facebook. He was a proponent of mask burning and thought public health messages urging people to get vaccinated were “disgusting.”
In August 2021, Apley was admitted to hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms. He tested positive for COVID-19, was placed on a ventilator and died. Apley left behind a wife and a 5-month old son who both tested positive for the virus.
A GoFundMe page was set up to help pay his funeral expenses.
B – Gisèle Beaudoin, French-Canadian Country Singer
Canadian country singer, Gisèle Beaudoin, 70, believed that COVID-19 was a conspiracy. She didn’t believe in vaccines or masks. She sent video links to her family to try to convince them that COVID-19 was nothing to be concerned about, causing her sister to distance herself.
On 1 May 2021, on the same day that thousands of anti-vaxxers protested against COVID health measures on the streets of Montreal, Gisèle Beaudoin died of COVID-19.
Before she died, Gisèle asked her sister to tell her Facebook followers to get vaccinated.
C – Curt Carpenter, America, 28
Curt Carpenter from Alabama was a vaccine sceptic. He didn’t ‘believe’ in COVID-19. He thought it was a hoax.
Carpenter, a young man, who was overweight but otherwise had no underlying health problems, spent 51 days in intensive care battling the disease he didn’t believe exists, before losing his life to it in July 2021.
Curt’s mother said he changed his mind about the virus when he could not breathe without oxygen – the same day he was put on a ventilator. On that day he said, “This is not a hoax, this is real.”
D – Kyle Dixon, American State Prison Guard, 27
Kyle Dixon, 27, was a Donald Trump supporter. He believed the COVID-19 misinformation that was spread by the former President. Masks don’t work. The virus is a hoax. Only old people get sick. Dixon believed it all.
When he began to suffer symptoms of the virus, Kyle tried to treat it with cough medicine.
Kyle Dixon died on January 20, 2021. It is unlikely he was vaccinated given the beliefs prevalent in his family circle. Seven of Kyle’s family members fell ill with COVID-19.
While some members of the Dixon family understood the virus is real and can be deadly, others have clung to QAnon propaganda, even despite the young man’s untimely death.
“I wish that they could have been there his last days and watched him suffer,” his sister said.
E – John Eyers, British Fitness Enthusiast, 42
John Eyers, a British fitness enthusiast loved climbing mountains. Fit and healthy, he thought there was no need for him to get vaccinated. He had had asthma, but, otherwise, had no underlying health conditions. He didn’t want to put a vaccine in his body.
Ironically, after contracting COVID-19, Eyers’ body was pumped full of “every drug in the hospital” but to no avail. He died in August 2021, leaving behind a grieving mother and twin brother who wish he’d had the vaccine.
F – Dick Farrel, American Radio Host
Florida TV and radio personality, Dick Farrel called COVID-19 a “scam-demic.” He thought Dr Anthony Fauci was a “power tripping lying freak.” It made great radio.
“Why take a tax promoted by people who lied 2u all along about masks, where the virus came from and the death toll?” he posted.
Farrel is not broadcasting or posting any more. He died of COVID-19 in August 2021.
Before he died, Farrel changed his mind about the vaccine. “GET IT!” he texted his friends. “I wish I had gotten it.”
G – Hans Kristian Gaarder, Norway
Norwegian man, Hans Kristian Gaarder, believed the conspiracy theories that COVID-19 was a fake disease. When he became ill after two, large, illegal gatherings in his barn, he refused to believe he had been infected with the virus and did not seek medical treatment.
Mr Gaarder, who proudly claimed to have done “his own research”, is now dead.
G – Goncalves Family, Wales
The Goncalves, a Portuguese family living in Wales, were persuaded by anti-vaccination messages and refused COVID-19 vaccines. Now Basil, 73, Charmaine, 65 and their son Shaul, 40, are all dead after catching the virus.
The only surviving member of the family has urged others to have the vaccine that would have saved his parents and sibling.
H – Stephen Harmon, Hillsong Church Member, 34
Stephen Harmon, a member of Hillsong Church in America, wasn’t just evangelistic about Jesus, he was also spreading the word about the folly of having a vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
“Got 99 problems but a vax ain’t one,” he tweeted in June. Harmon regularly joked about the virus on social media, believing God would protect him.
Harmon asked for prayers after falling ill with COVID-19 in July 2021. He died in August 2021 after being intubated – knowing he may well not wake up.
H – Brent H, British Father, Early 50s
A British man, known only as Brent H, boasted in September 2019, “I’ve never taken a flu shot and I’ll never take a Covid shot.”
Brent bet on the fact that zinc and a vitamin D regimen would protect him against the disease more than any vaccine.
Brent H, who had no underlying health conditions, died of COVID-19 in June 2021. His daughter posted on social media, “I know he’s been saying otherwise, but PLEASE save your families this heartache. Go get your shot.”
I – Isabella’s Family – United States
Isabella, 21, was the only one in her family who didn’t buy into anti-vax, COVID-19 conspiracy theories. None of her family was vaccinated when her great-aunt and great-uncle both died of COVID-19 – despite having been eligible for a vaccination for months.
Now, having seen Isabella receive a vaccine with no ill-effects, more members of Isabella’s family have started getting vaccinated despite believing previously that the virus wasn’t serious.
J – Patient of Nurse Jessica, 14
A 14-year old girl died of COVID-19 after her anti-vaxxer parents refused permission for her to be intubated.
Jessica, the nurse who stroked the girls hair as she died, is convinced the child would have lived if she had been put on a ventilator.
The teenager had been looking forward to starting high school and wanted to be a vet.
K – Matthew Keenan, British Soccer Coach, 34
Matthew Keenan was a vaccine skeptic – until he caught COVID-19.
Keenan died of the virus in July 2021 after saying he wished he could turn back time.
K – Dr Stephen Karanja, Kenyan Catholic Doctor
Dr Stephen Karanja, chairman of the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association, was an outspoken opponent of COVID-19 vaccinations. Karanja believed that the vaccine was “totally unnecessary” and the motivation “suspect.” He was not supported in his claims by the Catholic Church, but was a well-known anti-vaxxer who had “often allied with [other] religious leaders to oppose mass vaccination campaigns.”
Instead of the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr Karanja promoted unproven treatments including steam inhalation, hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin (a horse-worming treatment).
Dr Karanja died of COVID-19 in April 2021.
L – Les Lawrenson, British Solicitor
Les Lawrenson, 58, was a British solicitor. A graduate of Cambridge University, he was a health 58 year old before contracting COVID-19.
Lawrenson refused to be vaccinated. He believed, being a healthy, relatively young man, he didn’t need it. He hoped that he’d get the virus and pick up antibodies ‘naturally.’
He said in a vlog:
“The idea that we have to afraid of this bogeyman – this COVID-19 – [that] this somehow is a monster. We’ve got to get over this.”
When he did get sick, he didn’t seek medical help. The monster won. Lawrenson is dead.
M – Gary Matthews, British Artist
British portrait artist, Gary Matthews, liked to share anti-lockdown messages on Twitter. Relatives begged him to wear a mask and follow social-distancing advice, but he refused. After spending a week in hospital. Matthews died of COVID-19 at his home in Shropshire on 13 January 2021.
His family remember him as shy, gentle, kind, and talented. They loved him very much. Now, he’s dead, the victim of what London mayor, Sadiq Khan, describes as “pernicious propaganda”.
P – David Parker, British Nightclub Manager
David Parker, a British nightclub manager, enjoyed mocking people for taking the ‘experimental vaccine’ and for being taken in by a ‘big pharma’ conspiracy.
Proudly unvaccinated, Parker died of COVID-19 in August 2021.
R – Lydia and Lawrence Rodriguez, American Parents, 40s
Lydia Rodriguez, a 42-year-old mother of four, didn’t believe in the COVID-19 vaccine.
At the beginning of August 2021, Rodriguez and her husband Lawrence were both breathing with the help of machines after being admitted to hospital with COVID-19. The virus has, reportedly, ravaged their bodies. They have been hospitalised for weeks.
If they manage to survive – which is not at all certain – they will face long recoveries and possibly long-term health problems. Their household and medical bills have become overwhelming.
One of the last things Lydia said before being intubated was to make sure her kids got vaccinated.
S – Landon Spradlin, American Evangelical Musician
Landon Spradlin was a conservative Christian musician from Virginia. His mission in life was to save souls. He looked after himself. He didn’t drink or take drugs, and did his best to care for those who did. He loved people and believed that God could heal anything.
“There are documented cases of God healing AIDS,” said Spradlin. “God can cause limbs to grow out where they’ve been chopped off. God can raise the dead.”
Spradlin rejected the idea that COVID-19 was dangerous. He thought the media was creating mass hysteria in order to manipulate people’s lives. He didn’t believe he needed to be vaccinated, wear a mask or practice social distancing. He was a soldier of God, and God would protect him.
Returning from an evangelical mission to the New Orleans Mardi Gras in 2019, Spradlin was racked by coughing fits. His wife was also ill. Spradlin collapsed at a service station and was rushed to hospital. There, he was intubated and diagnosed with COVID-19. Later, as his kidneys shut down, he was given dialysis. A network of believers prayed fervently for his recovery.
God didn’t save Landon Spradlin. He died at 4am in the morning.
While Spradlin’s network was in disbelief at his death, one friend seemed to understand that even God has limitations, “By making these claims [that God will protect you], you overpromise in God’s name.”
T – Texas Patient, 30s
A man from San Antonio, Texas was so unconcerned about COVID-19, he attended a COVID party – ‘designed’ to test the theory that concerns about the virus were unfounded.
He contracted the virus. Now he is dead.
Just before he died he said to his nurse: “I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.”
U – Mark Anthony Urquiza
Mark Anthony Urquiza, a first-generation Mexican-American, was a healthy 65-year old when he died from COVID-19 at the Democratic National Convention in August 2020. Urquiza was a disenchanted former Trump supporter.
Urqiza’s daughter, Kristin said, “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”
Kristin Urquiza said:
“His death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk.”
V – Phil Valentine, American Radio Host
Nashville radio host, Phil Valentine, was a vaccine sceptic. He has been described as “a visionary of the conservative movement.” Valentine thought that even if he got the virus, he wouldn’t die from it.
He was wrong. He did.
W – Caleb Wallace, American “Freedom Defender”, 30
Texan, Caleb Wallace, was passionate in defence of his ‘constitutional rights.’ The 30 year old led “freedom rallies” to protest against face masks and vaccines. He believed his personal freedom mattered more than other peoples’ health.
When Wallace fell ill, he did not seek medical treatment. Instead, he self-medicated with aspirin, vitamin C and horse-wormer.
Wallace died of COVID-19, leaving behind a wife and three very young children.
Z – Linda Zuern, American Trump Supporter and New England Politician
Trump supporter, Linda Zuern was a proud member of the pro-Trump group, the United Cape Patriots. She believed COVID-19 was a plot to create a one world government and used her Facebook page to spread conspiracy theories about the pandemic. Like many who shared her political views, Zuern was not vaccinated.
Zueren died in July 2021 from complications resulting from COVID-19. Her mother also fell ill with the virus, but survived.
Zueren was praised by one of her compatriots for doing “so much work on the conservative movement”.
Get the Damn Vaccine
Michael Freedy, a Las Vegas father of five, died of COVID-19 in August 2021. In one of his final texts he wrote: “I should have gotten the damn vaccine.”
Please – don’t end up as a cautionary tale on an A-Z list of people who gambled with their lives and lost.
Please. Please. Please.
Get the damn vaccine.
“Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.”
– Bob Dylan, With God on Our Side
Aspiring politician, religious lobbyist, and former managing director of the Australian Christian lobby, Lyle Shelton, has spent his life fighting for what he believes is right. In these battles, Shelton believes fervently he is doing God’s will; that he has God on his side. And yet, isn’t it peculiar that every battle Lyle takes on ends in abject failure?
There are three possible explanations for this.
- There is no God
- There is a God, but he is not, in fact, on Lyle’s side.
- There is a God and he is using Lyle in much the same way he used Judas Iscariot.
Of course, my preferred option is “(a)”, but I have been wondering, of late, how Lyle reconciles his abysmal track record with his dogged belief that God is a member of his cheer squad. Surely, if God were on Lyle’s side, he would emerge triumphant – at least occasionally.
Lyle Shelton was raised in a cult – the Logos Foundation. By definition, cult members believe they are God’s chosen people; that they, alone, understand God’s will. So, I have some sympathy for Lyle. He was conditioned from an early age to believe it was his mission to ensure God’s will prevails.
Through no fault of Lyle’s, the Logos Foundation was a monumental failure. Founded in New Zealand in the 1960s, Logos later relocated to Australia where it fell under the leadership of former Baptist minister, Howard Carter. At its peak, the Logos Foundation boasted around 150,000 members and was linked with various international dominionist movements. Under Carter, Logos took on the “overt theological-political paradigm” of the “post-millennialism of Presbyterian Reconstructionist theonomy” – a movement which effectively calls for a Christian coup of the world’s governments in order to reinstate divine law and justice. (See my article on the Australian Christian Lobby and dominionism, here.)
With Carter, Lyle’s father, Ian Shelton, was a leader of the Logos Foundation, so this was the world-view and Christian mission into which Shelton junior was indoctrinated. One can certainly imagine that when a young person is told their family was chosen to help return the world’s governments to God’s stewardship in order to create a world fit for the second coming of Jesus Christ, it has a profound impact. It’s an entirely more beguiling prospect that following Dad into the family plumbing business!
But, it appears, God was not on the side of the Logos Foundation.
In the 1980s, the cult moved to Queensland where Carter and Shelton senior became involved in the 1989 Queensland State election. (Lyle was, then, 19 – old enough to understand what was going on in the ‘family business.’ Logos lobbied heavily for candidates to adhere to Christian principles and biblical ethics, oppose pornography, homosexuality and abortion, and perversely – given their strong ‘pro-life’ position – return capital punishment in line with Old Testament law (not just for first-degree murder, but for homosexuals as well).
This approach backfired spectacularly in uniting Queensland’s Christian forces to reclaim the Queensland government for God. Instead, mainstream churches recoiled in horror, distanced themselves from Logos and denounced the campaign.
Soon after, Logos leader, Howard Carter (supposedly anointed by God), was exposed as living the high life on Foundation funds and was found in flagrante delicto with a female parishioner. The cult fell apart and, soon after, Carter died, of eye cancer.
The Logos Foundation’s only surviving remnants were the Shelton family’s Toowoomba City Church, (established in the aftermath by Shelton senior) and a group called the Network for Christian Values (of which we’ll hear more, later). God, it seems, was not on the side of the Logos Foundation, nor had he anointed Howard Carter, after all.
As a young man, Lyle worked as a youth pastor at his father’s church, and still gives the occasional homily there. Later, he studied journalism and, for a time, worked as a reporter for a rural newspaper. But, not surprisingly, given his upbringing, Lyle aspired to a career in politics.
“I had politics in my blood,” said Lyle in a 2019 interview with Lech Blaine of The Monthly. “Our family discussions around the kitchen table were about politics and religion – the two subjects you should never talk about in polite company.”
(There are many who would suggest that Lyle Shelton should never be let loose in polite company in the first place.)
In 2000, Lyle enjoyed one of his rare successes. He was elected to the Toowoomba City Council on a platform of expelling the sex industry from the city. Lech Blaine describes Lyle colourfully as “Ned Flanders with a country Queensland twang.” But, if God exists, he must have an extraordinary sense of humour. Because, at the same election, the good people of Toowoomba elected Dianne Thorley as their mayor. Blaine describes Thorley as an “independent feminist” and:
“… a lifelong underdog, a short-haired former pub chef who swore like a drunken sailor with Tourette’s. She didn’t wear make-up, jewellery or dresses. Her voice was husky from chain-smoking menthol cigarettes. At 19, she gave up a baby for adoption. Her platform featured personal honesty, empathy for the destitute and, presciently, environmentalism.
… Thorley spoke publicly about surviving a violent marriage with a Pentecostal wife-beater, and recovering to become a successful businesswoman. She describes her ideology as “pro business with a social conscience.”
When Thorley confronted a local graffiti artist she told him if he persisted with his vandalism, “I’ll rip off your dick so hard you’ll have to piss sitting down.”
Undeterred, Lyle and his father attempted to persuade Thorley to join with them in doing God’s work in Toowoomba. She responded, “Fuck off Lyle! Just let me have a smoke and coffee in peace.”
You’d think if God were serious about helping Lyle do his bidding in Toowoomba, he wouldn’t have saddled him with Di Thorley as mayor!
Needless to say, Toowoomba’s sex industry survived the Sheltons’ best efforts to eradicate it. I wonder if Lyle ever considered that God was on the side of the sex-workers.
To be fair, Lyle did have a big win during his time as a Toowoomba City councillor. He successfully joined a fear campaign against a scheme, instigated by Thorley, to address the city’s chronic water shortage by recycling sewage. Spooked by a flood of misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories, residents voted against the scheme in a plebiscite. The defeat prompted Mayor Thorley to describe Lyle as “a duplicitous little shit.”
If God was working on Lyle’s side, it seems God didn’t want Toowoomba drought-proofed with a scientifically proven, environmentally friendly method of water purification. If that’s the case, he truly does work in mysterious ways.
Emboldened by this victory, Shelton ran as a National Party candidate at the 2006 Queensland state election. He was roundly defeated by Labor’s Kerry Shine, 10,000 votes to 6,000, with Lyle’s candidacy prompting a 4.9 per cent downturn in the Nationals’ vote and a 1.7 per cent swing to Labor. Even God was not able to secure Lyle Shelton a seat in the Queensland Parliament.
I’ve been told by those who were around at this time that Lyle took the defeat hard – very hard. I have some sympathy. Imagine, being told from childhood that this was your destiny, that God and prayer would see you through, and then losing – badly.
Following the collapse of the Logos Foundation, former Logos members formed the Network for Christian Values, headed by the cult’s former national co-ordinator, Derek Brown. It was this group – strongly aligned with Christian dominionism and Australian fascism – which formed the Australian Christian Coalition – later re-badged as the Australian Christian Lobby. So, with Lyle’s political aspirations in tatters, it only made sense that “Plan B” was to get him a job as chief of staff of the Australian Christian Lobby, serving under managing director, Brigadier Jim Wallace.
There is no denying the ACL had considerable clout under Wallace. But, as many of us fought back against the regressive and harmful positions of that organisation, its grip on power began to decline. Wallace helped us out by making several major strategic errors, including becoming embroiled in a firestorm over an ANZAC Day tweet. Unwisely, in what might have been dismissed as a drunken tweet were it anyone other than Jim, Wallace suggested Australian soldiers had not fought for “gay marriage and Islamic [sic].” The public outcry forced Wallace into an embarrassing backdown.
Just as mainstream Christians were repulsed by the political machinations of the Logos Foundation, they rushed to reject Wallace’s take on the ANZACs.
“For what it’s worth,” tweeted Victorian Baptist minister, Simon Moyle, “I’m a Christian leader and @JimWallaceACL doesn’t remotely speak for me or any other Christians I know.”
If mainstream Christians feel that God is not on the side of the ACL, you have to wonder, “Whose values does this group represent?”
It wasn’t too long after the ANZAC Day debacle that Wallace retired and Lyle Shelton took his place as managing director. By then, the ACL was already a sinking ship and Lyle had none of the charisma or gravitas of his predecessor.
Lyle’s big opportunity to shine and re-establish the ACL as a political force was in the debate about marriage equality in 2017. Though, like King Canute, Lyle tried valiantly to turn the tide of public opinion, his campaign failed. Nearly 62 per cent of Australians voted “Yes” to marriage equality and the Australian Christian Lobby emerged defeated with their reputation in tatters. The ACL had offended all but the most conservative religious extremists with its harmful and dishonest campaign against what Lyle described, somewhat hysterically, as “The Yes campaign and their noisy rainbow-flag-waving storm troopers.”
You have to ask, “If God is on the side of the Australian Christian Lobby – if God anointed Lyle to represent his will on this issue – how is it that the ‘rainbow-flag-waving storm troopers’ won, and Lyle and his merry-band of theocrats lost. I’m sure Lyle was as perplexed as I am.
The rainbow-hued defeat seemed to turn Lyle a little loopy. He has subsequently campaigned against the depiction of cartoon lesbian ponies in the TV show “My Little Pony” and had an absolute conniption when a path in Alfred Park, Sydney, was painted in rainbow colours to commemorate the third anniversary of the national marriage equality vote.
“To all the children who might see this in Prince Alfred Park, Sydney,” tweeted Lyle. “Your mother is not a ‘birthing parent’, she is not a ‘chest feeder’, you were not born in the wrong body, & no adult for lifestyle reasons has the right to deny you the love of your mother & father.”
Okaaay. Step. Away. From. The. Rainbow. Path. Lyle.
While it’s impossible to know the conversations that went on at the ACL after the defeat of their campaign against marriage equality, the fact that Lyle departed in 2018 suggests there was a (mutual?) agreement that he wasn’t the man for the job. Geez, if you can’t win a political battle with God on your side, something is very, very wrong. And I’m betting the ACL weren’t about to blame God.
Since then, Lyle has failed to find traction in his life-long mission to bring us under the thumb of a Godly government.
After leaving the ACL in 2018, Lyle joined Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives as their communications director. In 2019, he ran for the Senate. But, despite Lyle’s best efforts, the Australian Conservatives’ performance was woeful; they failed to get a single candidate into parliament. In June 2019, Bernardi announced that he would deregister the party – apparently closed due to lack of interest. Where the f#ck was God?
Questioned about the dismal result Shelton said, “Sadly, we have not done well. It was not our time.”
You’d think God might have let them know that before they put in all that effort!
If God can’t communicate clearly with his earthly representatives about when they should run for parliament, you have to wonder whether there are other communication breakdowns between Yahweh and his chosen ones. Maybe God wasn’t against marriage equality, after all? Maybe Lyle just got it wrong.
Just as Lyle failed to get into the Queensland parliament in 2006, he failed to enter the federal sphere in 2019. If God wants Lyle in politics, he has a very funny way of showing it.
Defeated once again, Lyle worked as part-time staffer for Queensland LNP politician, Mark Robinson.
During this time, Lyle became embroiled in a ding-dong row with a couple of drag-queens who were innocently reading fairy tales to children in a council library. The furore resulted in a (gay) religious protestor taking his own life and Shelton being sued $20,000 for defamation. It was all very tacky, and it’s hard to imagine the Creator of the Universe looking down and feeling proud that Lyle was “doing God’s work.”
In April 2021 it looked as if God had finally decided Lyle’s time had come. With veteran religious bigot, Fred Nile, forced to retire from his own party, Lyle Shelton was to be ‘parachuted in’ to take his place in the NSW upper house. Sydney MLA, Alex Greenwich, spoke for many when he was asked how he felt about the light-weight Shelton succeeding heavy-weight Nile:
“Letting a politically irrelevant blow-in fill your vacated shoes is a sad legacy to leave after 40 years in Parliament.”
But Lyle, it seems, has the luck of Job when it comes to his political career. Just this week it was announced that, riven by internal squabbles and financial mismanagement, Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party has been forced into receivership. Before Lyle even had a chance to get elected, the party seems to have crumbled beneath him. Although it’s probably unfair to blame Lyle – who came so late to the CDP table – there has been some reference to his propensity for sending political parties down the gurgler.
Lyle Shelton was raised to believe he was chosen by God to help transform the world’s governments to create a world worthy of Christ’s return. And yet, at every turn, he has failed in spectacular style. The Christian parties he has joined have crumbled beneath him. He has failed to win every major battle he has taken on. He has never succeeded being elected and, like his father’s cult, his homophobia, bigotry and anti-scientific stance has lost him the respect and support of mainstream Christians and their churches.
It’s hard to believe that God, if he exists, could be so hugely inept at assisting his “Chosen One” to do his bidding. If God does have some great inscrutable plan in which Lyle is an actor, he seems to have cast Lyle as Judas rather than Jesus – the screw-up who gets everything wrong and lets the whole team down.
Perhaps it’s time for Lyle to consider whether God is really on his side – or whether God is looking on, appalled, with the rest of us.