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Pastoral response called for as voluntary assisted dying comes into effect, says Dr Freier

Anglican ministers should respond to a request for ministry in the same way as they would for any dying person.

Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier says that notwithstanding the gravity of ethical and theological concerns held by people of faith about the Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation, "the pastoral imperative will be to commend the dying person to God".

By Mark Brolly

June 19 2019 

Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier has called for a pastoral response as Victoria became the first Australian jurisdiction to permit Voluntary Assisted Dying from today.

Dr Freier, who is also the Anglican Primate of Australia, issued a pastoral note on the eve of the legislation coming into force, writing that notwithstanding the ethical and theological concerns about the legislation that continued to be expressed by people of faith, the pastoral imperative was to commend the dying person to God.

“Anglican ministers should respond to a request for ministry in these circumstances in the same way as they would for any dying person, including funeral ministry,” he wrote.

Archbishop Freier wrote that the passage of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act through the Victorian Parliament in 2017 meant that 18 months later, Victorians who met the strict eligibility criteria set out in the Act would be able to request access to voluntary assisted dying, if suffering from a terminal illness and approaching the end of their life.

“Consequently, Anglican ministers in Victoria may receive a request for ministry with a dying person who will end their life under the provisions of the state’s assisted dying legislation,” he wrote. “Those called upon to provide ministry in this situation may well share the ethical and theological concerns about the legislation that continue to be expressed by people of faith. Notwithstanding the gravity and importance of such concerns, the pastoral imperative will be to commend the dying person to God.

“Anglican ministers should respond to a request for ministry in these circumstances in the same way as they would for any dying person, including funeral ministry.”

In his most recent Ad Clerum (letter “To the Clergy”) on 14 June, Archbishop Freier added that if Anglican ministers were unable to respond to a request for ministry from a person seeking to use the provisions of the Act in the same way as they would for any dying person, they should advise the bishop and ask that another minister do so.

This may occur, for instance, if a minister found him or herself unable, in conscience, to offer ministry in the circumstances envisaged under the legislation.

Dr Freier’s pastoral note on 18 June, published on his Primatial website at http://www.anglicanprimate.org.au/2019/06/18/a-pastoral-note-on-assisted-dying/, referred readers to his statement at the time the legislation was passed in November 2017, http://www.anglicanprimate.org.au/press/assisted-dying-law-cause-for-lament/, in which he described the legislation as “dangerous and disturbing” and representing “a momentous social shift”. He also referred to the latest edition (2018) of A Pastoral Handbook for Anglicans: Guidelines and Resources for Pastoral Ministry, revised and edited by Bishop Bradly Billings, on page 257.

In July 2017, Archbishop Freier had signed an open letter to Premier Daniel Andrews from seven Melbourne-based bishops from the Anglican, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Syro-Malabar and Ukrainian Catholic traditions urging Mr Andrews to reconsider plans to legalise euthanasia, commending much of the work of the Victorian End-of-Life Choices Inquiry that had identified the need to improve the quality and accessibility of palliative care for all Victorians but strongly rejecting the proposal to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia. The letter may be read at http://www.anglicanprimate.org.au/news/bishops-write-to-premier/.

The leaders of Victoria’s four Roman Catholic dioceses issued a pastoral letter on 14 June in which they described today’s inauguration of the Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Act as “a new, and deeply troubling chapter of health care in Victoria”.

In a letter signed by Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, Bishop Paul Bird of Ballarat, Bishop Leslie Tomlinson of Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Bishop Patrick O’Regan of Sale, the Catholic leaders wrote: “Many people support euthanasia in various forms, and some also express a belief in God. A number of the loudest voices, including some members of the Victorian Parliament, have called VAD a ‘compassionate’ response to suffering, and those who oppose VAD have been accused of lacking in compassion.

“Contrary to this position, Pope Francis has encouraged ordinary Catholics everywhere to resist euthanasia and to protect the old, the young and the vulnerable from being cast aside in a ‘throw-away culture’. Instead, Francis calls us to follow Christ by accompanying people with compassion, sharing hope not fear. In Victoria, we have entered a moment in which we are called to join this task.

“Christians in Victoria, as in any other time of history, are now challenged to show a different approach to death and the dying, one which accompanies every person as they are dying and allows them to love and to be loved to the very end. We cannot cooperate with the facilitation of suicide, even when it seems motivated by empathy or kindness.

“These words will sound hard to hear, but as pastors of the Catholic dioceses of Melbourne, Ballarat, Sale and Sandhurst, we feel a responsibility not just to say ‘no’ to VAD, but to give every encouragement to model a way of life that renders VAD unnecessary.

“All of us who hold a principled opposition to euthanasia are now, in effect, conscientious objectors.

“We are called to engage with our Victorian communities with friendship and wisdom, not motivated by fear. We hold no animosity for those with whom we disagree – we simply wish to bear witness to what is good and true in those we love, and accompany them as Christ calls us. We will not abandon those we love, and we believe they have a right to be loved from the beginning to the end of their life.”

The State Government defended the introduction of Voluntary Assisted Dying, with a media release issued by Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos describing it as a genuine, compassionate choice for Victorians.

Joined by the Chair of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board, former Supreme Court Judge Betty King QC, Ms Mikakos said the Board would review each case of voluntary assisted dying, ensuring the high safety standards were met. It would receive reports from health practitioners, monitor the dispensing of medications, report to the Parliament and refer any potential issues to relevant authorities.

“This is about giving people who are suffering intolerably from an incurable disease a voluntary, compassionate choice over the manner of their death,” Ms Mikakos said.

“This is the most conservative model of its kind in the world, with 68 individual safeguards in place.

“My thoughts today are with those who have campaigned for this for many years. Your bravery will change lives.”

Under the legislation, only adults with decision-making capacity, who are suffering and have an incurable, advanced and progressive disease, illness or medical condition that is likely to cause death within six months (or 12 months for people with neurodegenerative conditions) can access the scheme.

A person may only access voluntary assisted dying if they meet all of the strict eligibility criteria, make three clear requests and have two independent medical assessments that determine they are eligible.

The request must always be initiated by the person themselves, with health practitioners who are treating the person and raise the issue subject to unprofessional conduct investigations.

The Government said more than 120 doctors – including GPs, cancer specialists and palliative care clinicians from around the state – were undertaking mandatory, specialist training to ensure they were equipped to assess a patient’s eligibility to access voluntary assisted dying. About a third of all participating doctors practise in regional Victoria.

A pharmacy service based at The Alfred Hospital would be the sole service for dispensing voluntary assisted dying medications across Victoria, ensuring patients are provided clear information regarding administration, and that unused medications are returned and destroyed.

The Government said it was also boosting palliative care, with this year’s Budget providing $72 million to improve end-of-life choices, including support for home-based palliative care in rural and regional Victoria.