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Why has opposition to euthanasia crumbled?

by | Sep 21, 2021

Politicians aren’t listening to logical, evidence-based arguments.

By Michael Cook 

Another Australian state, Queensland, legalised assisted dying last week. The bill passed in the unicameral parliament by an impressive margin — 61 to 30 — on Thursday afternoon. It was a “conscience vote”, ie, MPs were not bound by their party’s policy.

Although 55 separate amendments were proposed, all of them were rejected and the legislation passed as drafted by the state’s independent law reform commission. The law will be operation from January 2023.

Now five out of Australia’s six states have lawful assisted suicide and euthanasia: Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland. A bill will probably be introduced soon in the parliament of New South Wales. Opposition to assisted dying is strong there, but the momentum is clearly with supporters of “assisted dying”.

As Fr Frank Brennan pointed out in MercatorNet last week, the new law has three serious flaws. First, health practitioners are permitted to initiate a discussion of “assisted dying” with patients. Second, doctors who have a conscientious objection to “assisted dying” are obliged to refer to a compliant doctor. And third, healthcare facilities must permit “assisted dying” on their premises, even if it violates their “institutional conscience”.

These concerns were raised in the amendments and all of them were voted down.

After such a comprehensive, bipartisan defeat, opponents of euthanasia have to ask why. After all, just 24 years ago euthanasia was even more comprehensively defeated in the Federal parliament.

Back in 1995, the Northern Territory, a vast but sparsely populated area, became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise euthanasia. But after a fierce nation-wide debate the federal parliament quashed it in 1997. The vote in the lower house was 91 to 38, a margin even more convincing than Queensland’s.

Why have the consciences of politicians changed so dramatically? Drastically oversimplifying an extremely complex issue, there are at least three factors at work.

The first is emotional. As government responses to the pandemic have demonstrated, the electorate has become much more fearful. It has accepted draconian lockdowns, quarantines, curfews, and social distancing. As a result, fewer people have died from Covid-19, but mental health has worsened, domestic violence has soared, children have lost months of schooling, small businesses have gone to the wall, and governments have spent billions propping up the economy.

But, by and large, risk-averse voters support these measures. They value their health more than their liberties. As British sociologist Frank Furedi noted recently, “The rhetoric of staying safe and keeping others safe has acquired the status of a self-evident truth to the point that any form activity that appears to deviate from this norm is immediately condemned as a threat to the wellbeing of society.”

A similar dynamic is at work in the euthanasia debate. MPs recognise that there are dangers in “assisted dying” legislation, but they turn a blind eye to them. A pain-free life is the highest value, not liberty.

The second is intellectual. “Autonomy” has become the most precious of values and thwarting personal preferences has become the worst of all sins. Honoring autonomy was probably the most powerful motivation cited by Queensland MPs in the debate. As Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in her speech introducing the legislation back in May: “It is a bill about empowerment. It is about giving people choice. It is about giving people autonomy to make their own decisions about their end of life.”

Autonomy has become the default ideology of modern politics, a kind of surrogate religion. The lesser gods of community and family have been eclipsed.  Autonomy is the sword which cuts through Gordian knots in ethics and philosophy. And like all state dogmas, it is unquestionable.

The most significant consequence of incensing altars in the Church of Autonomy is not that politicians ignore advice from bishops, rabbis and imams. It is that we lose our sense of being creatures answerable to a Creator. There are no boundaries; we can make up the rules about everything.

The third is educational. Catholic schools failed Australia when Australia needed them most. The problem is not Catholic teaching; this has always been compassionate, well-informed and consistent. Just read Samaritanus Bonus, a lengthy Vatican document published last year.

Opposition to euthanasia is not just religious; there are countless reasons to oppose it on medical, legal, and social grounds. And whenever religious leaders contributed to the debate, they almost never employed theological reasoning.

Not that Catholics have been the only opponents of euthanasia in the Anglophone world, or even the most effective ones. Overseas, the American philosophers Leon Kass and David Velleman and the late British sociologist, Lord Jonathan Sacks, all Jewish, have deployed very effective defences against “assisted dying”. There are many others, of all persuasions, and none.

But my impression is that in the past it was the Catholic Church that provided most of the heavy artillery in framing effective secular, non-religious arguments against euthanasia. It has a deep and rich intellectual history. In its schools and universities, generations of students absorbed a more humane understanding of what it meant to be a person and a deeper understanding of moral obligations and the law. In Australia, 20 percent of students attend Catholic schools.

But – for a range of reasons — the Catholic education system derailed and failed to pass on this rich heritage to its students. The best and the brightest amongst them are often ethical ignoramuses. The Premier of Victoria, Dan Andrews, and the Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, both went to Catholic schools –and led the charge for “assisted dying” in their states. They are just two of many Catholic politicians who supported it.

My point is this: using robust, watertight, logical, evidence-based arguments with politicians is like shooting nerf guns at a rhinoceros. They just bounce off.

The experience in Queensland shows that opponents of euthanasia have to get back to basics. They have to show that fear is crippling and autonomy is stultifying. And Catholic schools have to get their act together.

Categories: Euthanasia