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.