Archbishop laments passage of assisted dying bill, urges emphasis on palliative care

Dr Freier says the legislation is 'dangerous and disturbing', while acknowledging its advocates have sincere motives

Premier Daniel Andrews said after today's vote that the assisted dying legislation was a reform that was "all about kindness and care, compassion and dignity". In July, Archbishop Freier and other Victorian church leaders declared that "human dignity is honoured in living life, not in taking it".

By Mark Brolly

November 22 2017 

Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop, Dr Philip Freier, has described the passage of assisted dying legislation through the upper house of the Victorian Parliament as historic and “a momentous social shift”, but one he cannot celebrate.

Dr Freier, speaking less than two hours after the Legislative Council passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 22 votes to 18 today after a 28-hour sitting, said he hoped and trusted that the legislation would be accompanied by a greater emphasis on and significantly increased funding for palliative care.

Last month, the Bill passed the lower house, the Legislative Assembly, by 47 votes to 37. But it needed amendments to be carried in the upper house and now must return to the Assembly for ratification, probably next week, before it can go to Victorian Governor Linda Dessau for Royal Assent and become law – making Victoria the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill. Last week, similar legislation in the NSW Parliament fell at the first hurdle when defeated by one vote in its upper house.

In all, the Victorian Parliament has spent more than 100 hours debating the legislation so far. Last week, debate in the Council was postponed when Labor MLC Daniel Mulino collapsed and was taken to hospital. He recovered and participated in this week’s debate.

“The passing of assisted dying legislation in Victoria’s upper house is certainly a historic day, but not one I can celebrate,” Dr Freier said. “For Christians and others who regard human life as having absolute value, this is a dangerous and disturbing piece of legislation, though I acknowledge that proponents of the assisted dying legislation are sincere.

“It represents a momentous social shift, with many doctors concerned about what it means for their profession and their duty to preserve life.

“I have written many times about the detailed reasons for my objections. They are recorded, for example, in the joint letter to the Premier I signed with six other Victorian bishops in late July. The letter can be seen here:

“I hope and trust that the Act will be accompanied by a greater emphasis on palliative care, and much improved funding.”

The legislation, to come into effect in mid-2019, will make assisted dying available only to people aged over 18 who live in Victoria, who must be deemed able to make decisions, who have an incurable illness and are experiencing intolerable suffering, and who are expected to die within six months. That is extended to 12 months for people with neuro-degenerative diseases such as Motor Neurone Disease.

Two doctors must sign off on the process and while the patient will administer the lethal substance themselves, if able, a doctor may assist if the patient is incapable of doing so. Doctors may choose not to participate if they are conscientious objectors to assisted dying.

Today’s vote came a week after the announcement that another big social change, same-sex marriage, would be introduced after a national postal survey showed that almost 62 per cent of Australians eligible to participate in the survey endorsed changing the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the assisted dying legislation was a reform that was “all about kindness and care, compassion and dignity”.

“It's about providing for those who have for too long been denied a compassionate end, the control, the power over the last phase of their journey,” Mr Andrews said.

In July, Archbishop Freier – who is also Anglican Primate of Australia – joined other Victorian church leaders in an ecumenical plea to Mr Andrews not to proceed with the legislation.

In their letter, the bishops – who included Roman Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart, Melbourne-based Bishop Ezekiel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Bishop Lester Priebbenow of the Victoria-Tasmania District of the Lutheran Church of Australia and Coptic Orthodox Bishop Suriel – commended the Victorian End-of-Life Choices Inquiry for identifying the need to improve the quality and accessibility of palliative care but strongly rejected its proposal to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia.

“Human dignity is honoured in living life, not in taking it,” the letter said. “Even though an act of euthanasia or assisted suicide may be motivated by a sense of compassion, true compassion motivates us to remain with those who are dying, understanding and supporting them through their time of need, rather than simply acceding to a request to be killed. It is right to seek to eliminate pain, but never right to eliminate people. Euthanasia and assisted suicide represent the abandonment of those who are in greatest need of our care and support.”

In October – at the request of Melbourne’s Anglican Diocesan Synod, which held its annual meeting that month – Dr Freier wrote an open letter to members of the Legislative Council alerting them to a resolution of Synod urging the Victorian Government to better resource and improve access to palliative care in Victoria, encouraging the Government to clarify the legal status of Advance Care Directives and to encourage Victorians to undertake Advance Care Planning, and opposing the introduction of a legal framework to provide for “assisted dying” (medically assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia).

Anglican medical ethicist Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke said she was not entirely surprised but was very disappointed that the Bill had passed in the Legislative Council.

“The fact that it had been narrowly defeated in NSW the previous week (as it has been recently in South Australia and Tasmania) had given me some faint hope that when members of Parliament looked closely at the legislation, they would realise how flawed it was and that it is impossible to legislate for state-sponsored assisted suicide and medical killing without endangering the lives of the vulnerable, who will now get a clear message that some lives are not worth living, that they are a burden on society and that they would be ‘better off dead’,” Dr Cooper-Clarke told TMA

“The amendments do improve the Bill and were necessary to get it passed but it is still a dangerous Bill.”

Dr Cooper-Clarke, a tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley College and a member of the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee, said opponents of the Bill had vowed to keep working to get it overturned and she applauded them for all their hard work and commitment to ongoing opposition to the practices of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

She encouraged people to look up how their local lower house and upper house MPs voted and to write to them to express their views. She said she would write to thank those who opposed it.

“We can support efforts to reverse this decision,” Dr Cooper-Clarke said. “But if that is not possible and 'assisted dying' becomes legal in Victoria in 2019, I believe Christians and the Church ought to continue to push for adequate funding of palliative care services, and (an area that has been relatively neglected in the debate) adequate mental health care services, especially in rural areas where they are manifestly currently inadequate.  We can and should begin this advocacy now, before the Bill comes into effect.

“At a local level, the Church needs to do much more to challenge the culture which enthrones individual choice as the ultimate value that trumps the common good. And we need to affirm the value of all human lives, especially those of the disabled, the elderly the sick and the frail. This ought to be both by teaching (including about elder abuse) and practical means, such as expanding pastoral and practical care to members of our communities including nursing homes.

“If and when legalised ‘assisted dying’ becomes a reality, I hope that supporters and opponents alike could put every effort into ensuring that no one is forced, because of pressure from their families, loneliness and/or lack of availability of quality palliative care or mental health services, to reach such a point of desperation and hopelessness that they feel they have ‘no choice’ but to ask for assistance to end their lives.

“I agree with the Archbishop that this legislation represents a momentous social shift, indeed a momentous moral shift, and is a cause for lament, and I thank him for his leadership on this issue.” 

The Australian Christian Lobby issued two statements in response to today’s vote, with ACL’s Victorian Director Mr Dan Flynn saying the Government had crossed an ethical line and embraced “a culture of death” with the passage of the Bill.

“With the Victorian election to be held in late 2018, many Victorians will be seeking assurances from candidates that they will repeal this dangerous legislation if they are elected,” Mr Flynn said.

ACL’s National Managing Director, Mr Lyle Shelton, said Australian states and territories must not cast aside palliative care in favour of a state-sanctioned assisted suicide regime, as had happened in Victoria.

“Euthanasia is an easy, cheap and dangerous way out of addressing palliative care funding while risking the lives of vulnerable people,” Mr Shelton said.

“Victorian parliamentarians have taken a backward and dangerous step today that should be rejected by all other jurisdictions.”