Synod rejects assisted dying

Motion urges governments to focus on better resources for palliative care

By Stephen Cauchi

September 11 2017The Anglican Church’s General Synod has rejected moves by Victoria and New South Wales to legalize assisted dying.

A motion opposing the legalisation of assisted dying was passed by the Synod, which met in Maroochydore, Queensland, in early September.

An earlier motion which neither supported nor opposed assisted dying was not passed.

The successful motion was moved by Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke, a member of the Melbourne Anglican Social Responsibilities Committee.

Dr Cooper-Clarke told the Synod that under “assisted dying” legislation proposed in the two states, a doctor could prescribe a lethal drug for a patient to take by themselves.

The patient would have to be aged over 18 in Victoria (25 in New South Wales), be terminally ill, mentally competent, and in unacceptable pain, said Dr Cooper-Clarke.

Alternatively, if the patient was unable to take the drug, the doctor (in the Victorian bill) or someone nominated by the patient (in the NSW bill) would administer the lethal drug.

Dr Clarke said that some people in the last stages of their life did experience “difficult to manage” pain.

However, palliative care services could help such people, she said. Palliative care services were “known to decrease requests for help to end people’s lives”.

That’s why the first part of the motion was concerned with palliative care, she said. “No one should be forced by the lack of availability of quality palliative care services to ask for their life to be ended.” 

While palliative care could not alleviate the pain of every terminally ill patient, that still did not justify assisted dying, she said.

“Many people support assisted dying because they believe it is a compassionate response to suffering.

“But how is it compassionate to agree with someone who is so distressed that they wish to end their life, that yes, their life is not worth living, and yes, they would be better off dead?

“How is that more compassionate than getting alongside them and providing the best care and support so that they are able to find hope and meaning and even joy in the life that is left to them?”

A further major problem, said Dr Cooper-Clarke, was that assisted dying would inevitably become more widespread.

“The criteria for eligibility for 'assisted dying' will inevitably be expanded, either in practice or by legislation,” she told the Synod.

“Overseas experience shows that initial safeguards become eroded in time.”

Dr Cooper-Clarke said that in The Netherlands, “what began as a measure for exceptional cases has now become so normalized that one in 25 deaths in The Netherlands is now a case of 'assisted dying'.”

A further risk, she said, was that patients could be coerced into requesting assisted dying.

“Elderly, frail and sick patients are especially vulnerable to implied or explicit messages from relatives that they are a burden and 'better off dead'.

“It is naïve to assume that people always have the best interests of their relatives at heart.

“Elder abuse is prevalent in our society."

The motion passed by the Synod:

*affirmed the sanctity of life;

*noted that in 1995 the Synod expressed its opposition to pro-euthanasia legislation passed by the Northern Territory Parliament;

*urged all Australian governments to better resource palliative care services;

*urged all Australian Anglicans to contact their MPs to express their views - particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, where assisted dying legislation will be debated later this year.

An earlier motion which neither supported nor opposed assisted dying was rejected by Synod by a vote of 159 to 68.

The alternative motion was brought by Wangaratta layperson Rachel Ellyard.

“My motion was silent on whether assisted dying should be supported or not,” Ms Ellyard told TMA afterwards.

“My version of the motion was intended to reflect the fact that all people are entitled to care which meets their needs and that some people find that palliative care does not meet their needs.

“It called for people to contribute to the debate without specifying what side of the debate people should be on. In my speech I said that given the evidence from the Victorian Parliamentary enquiry, we should be more pastoral and nuanced in how we approach this very difficult topic.”