ALL over Australia, people are again discussing the morality of ending one’s own life.
While there still seems to be a strong taboo around suicide, many people seem to think that under certain circumstances – for example, in the final stages of a terminal and incurable disease – you ought to be legally permitted to actively end your life, and ought to be able to expect the aid of medical professionals to achieve this end.
So-called Voluntary Assisted Dying is now legal in the state of Victoria.
It is also the subject of a Parliamentary Inquiry in Queensland.
Queenslanders are rightly horrified by high levels of suicide in our state – the second highest in Australia according the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
What puzzles me is why, at the same time, some Queenslanders want to endorse suicide for some people?
Some advocates of voluntary assisted dying want to avoid terms like physician-assisted suicide because, they argue, such terms already imply moral judgements.
Yet, in making such arguments, such advocates seem implicitly to think that suicide is morally wrong, or at least tragic, which is why they do not want that connotation to be brought to voluntary assisted dying.
Instead, and I am being careful to use morally neutral language here, they want killing yourself, or asking others to kill you, in certain circumstances, to be considered desirable and morally acceptable, unlike killing yourself in all other circumstances.
And more than that, they want this supposed moral acceptability enshrined in law.
In the United States of America in the 1980s, two issues were being hotly debated – abortion and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The US bishops published a pastoral letter in 1983 The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, condemning them both.
In 1984, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, offered an interpretation of this letter that connected the two issues.
For Cardinal Bernardin, the bishops’ letter gave expression to a “consistent ethic of life”.
The idea of the consistent ethic of life is that if we are going to be concerned about the destruction of human life in one context, we need to be consistently concerned about destruction of human life in all contexts.
So, it is inconsistent to be anti-abortion, but in favour of nuclear armaments or the death penalty.
Moreover, Cardinal Bernardin argued this consistent ethic of life also commited us to be concerned about quality of life – it was not enough to oppose abortion; we also had to be committed to providing the means for all human beings to live a life in which they flourished, especially those who were most marginalised and vulnerable.
If we, as Queenslanders, are rightly concerned about high rates of suicide in our state, then surely we should also be concerned about claims that some circumstances make suicide legitimate?
If such circumstances exist, then surely, if we are consistent, our first concern, as it is with all cases of suicide, is to work out what we can do to help a person live whatever life they have in a meaningful way?
The parliamentary inquiry in Queensland includes aged care, and palliative and end of life care.
Queenslanders are rightly concerned about shortfalls in our capacity as a society to care properly for an aging population in ways that help them and those around them continue to live meaningful and flourishing lives.
Similarly, we are rightly concerned about failings in our capacity as a society to properly alleviate the physical and existential suffering of those living with life-limiting conditions.
The suggestion that voluntary assisted dying should be legalised seems to be radically inconsistent with these legitimate concerns.
It would be all the more concerning if this were seen as a solution to the problems of our failings as a society to properly care for others.
Queensland now has a Human Rights Act. At the heart of this law is the commitment to respect the “inherent dignity and worth of all human beings” and the “equal and inalienable human rights of all human beings.”
Human rights support the flourishing of individuals and of society.
They aim to prevent bad things being done to people, and to ensure that the good things that people need to flourish are provided to help them to do so.
In our state, there are still so many inequities that threaten dignity and flourishing – the gap in outcomes for indigenous Australians, the gap in service provision to regional and remote areas, the high rates of domestic violence, the challenges of providing high quality and life affirming aged care, the shortage of palliative care especially in rural areas, and, of course, the fact that according to the ABS, “In 2017, suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged between 15-44 years, and the second leading cause of death among those 45-54 years of age”.
Given Queensland’s commitment to dignity, human rights and flourishing, and the clear barriers to flourishing that still exist, it would be inconsistent at best, if not indeed irresponsible, for a government to legalise voluntary assisted dying.
Our laws, as the Human Rights Act does, should affirm our commitment to meaningful living and flourishing, and not cast doubt on this admirable and worth goal.
Bishop Tim Harris is the Bishop of Townsville and a member of the Australian Catholic Bishops Commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement.
Submissions to the State Parliamentary Inquiry into Aged, Palliative and End of Life Care and possible VAD legislation close on April 15.
Email your response to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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