Listen to this story:
ROME – Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher has drawn on his own experience with illness to oppose a draft euthanasia bill currently before an Australian parliamentary committee, asking those conducting the inquiry to take the concerns of religious believers seriously.
In a Dec. 10 statement published in The Catholic Weekly, the Archdiocese of Sydney’s formal news platform, Fisher said the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide “will be a radical departure from one of the foundational principles of our society.”
“It confirms in law that some people are regarded as better off dead and that our legal system, health professionals and care institutions will help to make them dead,” he said.
Euthanasia or assisted dying laws, he said, divide people into two different categories: “those whose lives are considered sacred and whose deaths we invest heavily in preventing, and those who are considered dispensable and whose deaths we invest in assisting.”
“As time goes on and assisted suicide is normalized, this latter class of people expands,” he said, noting that in Canada, euthanasia was legalized in 2016, and in the five years that have elapsed, the class of those eligible for euthanasia expanded from the terminally ill to those who are chronically sick or disabled, but who are not in danger of dying, with no requirement for a foreseeable natural death to qualify.
Fisher argued that under the proposed laws, within 18 months eligibility for those considering euthanasia “will also extend to those suffering mental illness alone,” meaning that in due course, there will unquestionably be provisions added “for the unconscious and children.”
Last month New South Wales’s voluntary assisted dying bill successfully passed the lower house of parliament after four days of debate and the consideration of more than 150 amendments, 42 of which were accepted.
While amendments were approved to include further resources for palliative care in both regional and rural areas, the new laws also allow two doctors to approve a euthanasia request with no mandatory psychological assessment of the patient beforehand.
It also stipulates that the two doctors do not need to be independent of each other, and do not even need to meet or examine the patient before making their decision.
Currently the bill is before an upper house committee, which is accepting public submissions, including Fisher’s, during various hearings. The committee’s inquiry must be completed before parliament resumes in February 2022, in order to allow time for the bill to be debated and voted on in the upper house, although experts predict that support for the bill will be less in the upper house.
This vote comes after authorities in Queensland passed a similar bill in September, making the Australian state the fifth jurisdiction in the nation to allow voluntary euthanasia laws.
Under the Queensland law, access to Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) is available to people with advanced and progressive conditions who are experiencing great suffering and are expected to die within a year.
Those seeking euthanasia in Queensland must be alert and able to make their own decisions, and they must also be assessed by two different doctors, and must make three separate requests for euthanasia within a period of nine days.
In his remarks for his submission to the NSW parliamentary committee, Fisher, who in 2015 suffered an attack of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an auto-immune disorder that damages the nervous system, offered his own personal experience with life-threatening illness and caring for others who are sick.
Fisher recalled how while he was sick, he was paralyzed from the neck down, and was “in extreme pain and reliant on others for every aspect of my existence for the next five months in hospital.”
“My recovery was a very slow and painful process. I was embedded amongst patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, motor neuron disease and other degenerative and ultimately fatal illnesses,” he said, adding that while he recovered, he personally experienced the kind of suffering “that makes some people want to end it all.”
In addition to his own health troubles, Fisher noted that both of his parents are in nursing homes, and his mother is currently dying of bone marrow cancer.
He also pointed to his more than 30 years of experience as a pastor “walking with the sick and their fatigued care-givers, sitting by the dying and offering love and hope,” as well as prayer and the sacraments, as he buried the dead and comforted their grieving families.
“As difficult as these times have been, I have also witnessed the reconciliation and peace that comes with letting these things work themselves through,” he said, insisting that his personal experience gives him a unique perspective on the issue.
Religious believers “cannot approach this issue from a sanitized distance, as care of the sick and dying is core to our mission,” he said, saying this is the reason that the Catholic Church “is the oldest and largest provider of healthcare, aged care and palliative care in the world.”
Those who seek to either exclude religious voices from the discussion on euthanasia or minimize the weight they hold “are not only demonstrating anti-religious bias but also rejecting the views of one of the chief providers of end-of-life care,” Fisher said.
While the Archdiocese of Sydney’s response to each of the provisions of the proposed bill will be submitted in further detail, Fisher lamented that the current draft of the bill “lacks many of the safeguards in the bill presented to this Legislative Council just four years ago.”
“It also represents a serious attack on the freedom of religious hospitals and aged care facilities to operate in accordance with their ethos which the previous bill did not,” he said, and asked the committee to “seriously consider” several amendments to the bill that the archdiocese proposed.
Fisher noted that the period of inquiry for the new bill “is the shortest in duration of any inquiry before this Committee – and perhaps any committee – in the history of the NSW Parliament.”
Not only that, but it is also “the shortest inquiry into euthanasia and assisted suicide held in any Australian jurisdiction. It has allowed fewer submissions than any other state inquiry,” he said, noting that it also falls at a time when Australian health professionals are overstretched and overworked due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “and so have been unable to contribute as they might to the inquiry and broader debate.”
“Notwithstanding the incredibly short timeframe, I ask the Committee to consider carefully the many submissions before it and to ensure that the law does not put the already vulnerable even more at risk,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen