Tag Archives: voluntary assisted dying

Faith and Power

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.

Caralise Trayes leading worship

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.

Chrys Stevenson

A Lack of Willingness to Endure – Dr Megan Best on Voluntary Assisted Dying

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:

Empirical trends in NVE rates before and after legalisation of assisted dying

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.

Suicide Contagion

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
  • breathlessness
  • 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.

She says:

“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.”

Chrys Stevenson

Heaven on their minds: Qld Pollies & the Assisted Dying Debate

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. 

Chrys Stevenson