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Indigenous community in far north Queensland says euthanasia is against Aboriginal culture

Standing up: Augustinian Father Robert Greenup (left), parish priest at St Thomas of Villanova, Mareeba, and who visits remote communities alongside Aboriginal Deacon Ralph Madigan (right) both say euthanasia is against Aboriginal culture.

MANY indigenous Queenslanders hold grave concerns about voluntary assisted dying (VAD), finding it frightening and at odds with their culture, according to Church leaders.

If Queensland politicians pass VAD laws, Townsville Bishop Harris has warned fear of euthanasia would weaken cultural ties and “lead to indigenous people shying away from medical help when it’s needed, particularly in remote regions”.

After attending a plenary meeting of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC), Bishop Harris said he had been struck by the many cultural insensitivities and unaddressed fears being mentioned by its members.

The church leader said it was clear these concerns had been overlooked and underestimated during consultations with indigenous communities – where many people believe euthanasia is abhorrent, frightening and at odds with the way they culturally deal with dying.

“The way I came to understand it is that there is a seasonality to life which indigenous people accept as part of their tradition, and death is not so hidden away or removed as it is in the rest of society,” Bishop Harris said.

“They grow up in a community where, with many generations and extended family living together, one can witness and appreciate people aging and suffering at various stages of life.

“For them, the call to accompaniment is so ingrained, and they regard it as a great honour to be at the bedside of the dying, staying strong together and comforting each other in a real community effort.

“If that power and sense of accompaniment is now bypassed or delegated to a doctor having euthanasia discussions with a patient, without any reference to the community, then it is going to seriously weaken the ability of those communities to stay together,” Bishop Harris said.

Aboriginal Deacon Ralph Madigan, who makes pastoral visits to remote indigenous communities in far north Queensland, confirmed Bishop Harris’ cultural concerns, and a lack of consultation.

Euthanasia “is wrong”, Deacon Madigan said.

“I think people would put their views across if there was a proper meeting,” he said.

“In my family circle we wouldn’t think of it. We believe in dying naturally.

“We’ve had family that have died from sicknesses, and much in pain, but we wouldn’t dream of having euthanasia.

“Life is important, life is precious.”

Augustinian Father Robert Greenup, parish priest at St Thomas of Villanova, Mareeba, and who visits remote communities alongside Deacon Madigan said: “Aboriginal people would find the prospect of euthanasia ‘abhorrent’.”

“A distinct feature of aboriginal life is the importance of family, how there is a deep sense of connection,” he said.

“And for aboriginal people, who have many, many brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins, the sense of family goes beyond the human family into all creation and life.”

In addition to subverting customs and cultural practice, Bishop Harris said voluntary assisted suicide would foster further distrust of ‘Western medicine’, and lead to indigenous people shying away from medical help when it’s needed, particularly in remote regions.

“In Australia we have a woeful history when it comes to the care and protection of indigenous people and I worry that if we bring in VAD, we will negate their seeking health care.”

“When the first euthanasia laws were enacted in the Northern Territory in 1997 one of the starkest elements of the debate was indigenous people from remote communities saying, ‘they would be terrified to go to hospital’.

“To paraphrase, they would say ‘why would we get on a plane to go into Darwin, knowing that doctors can kill you?’

“Nothing in the intervening years of the euthanasia debate has done anything to allay those fears, and especially not the Parliamentary Health Committee Inquiry hearings, which, by their own admission, weren’t as consultative as they could be due to funding shortfalls.

“Consultation with the indigenous communities requires a far broader context, and certainly more than just one meeting. It begs the question that if you can’t fund the public consultation, how are you going to fund the legislation properly?

“The mind also boggles at the amount of energy and resources devoted towards VAD when we have indigenous people who don’t enjoy the lifespan of other Australians, and have yet to live fully or flourish in their own land,” Bishop Harris said.

“We need to focus on a ‘care first’ approach, one that sees palliative care properly funded and available state-wide to all Queensland communities.

“We need to kill the pain, not the patient,” he said.

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