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A Catholic perspective on the euthanasia debate

In 2008 Archbishop Phillip Wilson, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, lodged a submission to the Senate Enquiry into the Rights of the Terminally ill (Euthanasia Laws Repeal) Bill 2008.

In his cover letter to the submission the Conference President noted that: “End of life decisions are complex and heartrending for all involved. How our society cares for the most vulnerable in our society is a measure of the quality of our society. The Catholic Church is actively involved in such caring, with our extensive network of hospices, hospitals and other services.”

We Catholics advocate strongly for the rights of the vulnerable, especially around life issues. But we also ‘put our money where our mouth is’! So when the Catholic Church steps into the marketplace to speak out on what it sees as the injustice of euthanasia, it does so having first established its credibility in serving the poor, the sick, the terminally ill and the vulnerable.

The Archbishop did not make a religious argument to the Senate Enquiry against euthanasia. He submitted rather arguments based on respect for the common good. The ordinary man in the street gets these arguments; they do not have to be delivered by divine revelation.

The arguments for the common good are simple:

The universally accepted principle of the inviolability of human life means one ought not take one’s own life or intentionally take another person’s life. Euthanasia requires that someone intentionally kill another; its legalisation would diminish the acceptance of this principle.

Proponents of euthanasia argue that people should be free to make their own decisions in this matter, but this autonomy is never truly so. Others are involved – eg the doctor, and others are affected – eg family and friends. Euthanasia involves someone making a judgement that another person’s life is not worth living and making a decision to intentionally end that person’s life. Where does this end?

The most vulnerable in our community – ie the sick, the lonely, the dying – should be protected by governments, not put into the even more vulnerable position of thinking they are just a burden.

Good palliative care is needed that recognises the value and dignity of every human life, not legislation to sweep the plight of the terminally ill under the carpet of society’s responsibilities.

The doctor-patient relationship would be undermined – what confidence would a terminally ill patient, or any patient for that matter, have in their doctor who kills people through euthanasia?

The submission concluded by arguing that we need a society “where all can be assured that they can be accepted as people whose lives are worthwhile;” and where health care and palliative care back up that belief. Euthanasia would undermine these common goods.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ asked in his article in Eureka Street 21 September 2010 why the rush to this step by the Greens in a hung Parliament that has many matters to address for the good order and running of the country.

John Kleinsmen, Director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre suggests the claim for the right to assisted suicide reveals a deep-seated fear of the dying process. And that it reveals a dark side of western affluence that only values the lives of people who are productive and efficient.

In contrast is the example of the late Pope John Paul II who lived his life with great dignity and worth notwithstanding the challenges of his illness. CathNews recently reported Pope Benedict drawing on the “remarkable and moving” example of late Pope as a model for the aged, infirm and suffering.

The question is what sort of society do we want? The Catholic Church demonstrates by its action in the field of health and palliative care that it wants a society that values the worth and dignity of every human life and that does not sanction the intentional taking of human life.

Written by Bruce Ryan – Executive Secretary to the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life

September 23, 2010

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