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Melbourne archbishop endorses anti-euthanaisia letter to govt

Dr Freier joins ecumenical plea to Premier to reject assisted dying proposal

[Anglican Media Melbourne] Archbishop Philip Freier has joined six other Victorian Christian leaders in signing an open letter to Premier Daniel Andrews rejecting proposed legislation to allow assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The signatories wrote that better care, not killing, was needed; that no safeguards could ever guarantee that deaths under the proposed legislation would be completely voluntary; that the proposal sent “a confusing message” about suicide to society, particularly to the young and vulnerable; and that removing the fundamental principle to do no harm and never to kill from medical practice would compromise health care.

They commended much of the work of the recent Victorian End-of-Life Choices Inquiry, which urged improvements in the quality and accessibility of palliative care for all people.

“However we strongly reject the proposal to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia in Victoria,” they wrote.

Dr Freier was joined as a signatory by Melbourne’s Roman Catholic leader Archbishop Denis Hart, Melbourne-based Bishop Ezekiel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Bishop Lester Priebbenow of the Lutheran Church’s Victoria-Tasmania District, Bishop Bosco Puthur of the Syro-Malabar Eparchy (Diocese) of St Thomas the Apostle in Melbourne, Bishop Peter Stasiuk of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Sts Peter and Paul in Australia and New Zealand and Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Melbourne and Affiliated Regions.

The letter was published as an advertisement in the Herald Sun on 31 July.

“Human dignity is honoured in living life, not in taking it,” the seven bishops wrote. “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.”

The letter said there always would be a risk of error, fraud or coercion under the proposed legislation.

“Victoria abolished the death penalty because we recognised that in spite of our best efforts, our justice system could never guarantee that an innocent person would not be killed by mistake or by false evidence. The same is true of health care. Mistakes happen and the vulnerable are exploited. We ask you to consider especially the risks to those whose ability to speak up for themselves is limited by fear, disability, illness or old age.”

The bishops warned that endorsing suicide as a solution to pain and suffering would be counter-productive when governments and community groups were working so hard to persuade others that it was not a solution to take their own lives.

“Once the fundamental principle to do no harm and never to kill is removed from medical practice, the integrity of our health system is compromised. It will affect the confidence that seriously ill patients nearing the end of life can have in the treatment and the quality of care that they might otherwise have expected. When euthanasia or assisted suicide is an ever present – even if unspoken – option, how long will it be before the option becomes an expectation?

“We ask you and your government to think again and reject this legislation,” the letter concluded.

The Age online on 31 July quoted the National Co-ordinator for Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia, Mr Ian Wood, as saying the bishops’ claims about the risk of coercion were misleading.

“A person with a disability or other illness that is not terminal doesn’t qualify, so no amount of coercion at that stage is going to make any difference,” Mr Wood said.

He rejected the bishops’ view that assisted dying was a form of “endorsed suicide”.

“In the case of an assisted death, it’s not a choice between life and death, which is suicide, it’s a choice between two ways of dying,” Mr Wood said.

“The word suicide is a typical use of emotive language.”

A cross-party committee of MPs recommended that Victoria introduce a bill to legalise assisted dying, which the Government plans to have debated later this year. MPs will have a conscience vote on the legislation.

The Government has accepted all 66 recommendations made in a report written by an expert panel chaired by former Australian Medical Association president Professor Brian Owler.

Professor Owler said when the report was released: “We think that this model, which we acknowledge is the most conservative model for assisted dying in the world, is the right model for Victoria.”

Under the model, a person must meet all of the following eligibility criteria:

  • be an adult, 18 years and over;
  • be ordinarily resident in Victoria and an Australian citizen or permanent resident;
  • have decision-making capacity in relation to voluntary assisted dying; and
  • be diagnosed with an incurable disease, illness or medical condition, that is advanced, progressive and will cause death; is expected to cause death within weeks or months, but not longer than 12 months; and is causing suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable. 

Dementia patients will not qualify.

Only the patient can initiate a request for assisted dying, and the person must be assessed by two doctors, one of whom must be an expert in the person’s illness. Three requests would need to be made, one of which would be in writing.

In most cases, at least 10 days would pass between first and last request before the medication was dispensed.

The doctor must ensure the person was properly informed of the diagnosis and prognosis, treatment options, palliative care options, expected outcome of taking the lethal dose and possible risks of the lethal dose.

He or she must also inform the patient “they are under no obligation to continue with their request for voluntary assisted dying, and that they may withdraw their request at any time”.


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