Rhetoric: Palliative care can always help

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The terminally ill are not choosing between life and death, but between two ways of dying, according to their own beliefs and conscience. Photo: Andrew Drummond/AAP

In Monday’s Herald Sun, Victorian Archbishops Philip Freier and Denis Hart, and Bishops Ezekiel, Suriel, Lester Briebbenow, Bosco Puthur and Peter Stasiuk published a half-page advertisement admonishing the Victorian government for its initiative to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill, an ad similar to the one published by religious figures in 2008.

I have no quarrel with individuals of faith regarding their own private beliefs. However, the bishops’ attempt at public “leadership” through the advertisement is deserving of redress for its multiple fallacies.

The ‘abandonment’ fallacy

The bishops claimed that assisted dying “represents the abandonment of those who are in greatest need of our care and support”. On the contrary: to ignore the deeply-held beliefs and rigorously-tested wishes of people at the end of life is to abandon their values and critical faculties in favour of the bishops’ own religious dogma.

The ‘competition’ fallacy

The bishops demand there should be more funding for healthcare rather than assisted dying, fallaciously pitting one option against the other. The Victorian government is indeed increasing funding for palliative care. It’s also aiming to provide lawful assisted dying for when even the best palliative care can’t help – which Palliative Care Australia has acknowledged – giving lie to the faux competition.

The evidential fallacy

Contrary to the bishops’ false presumption that legalised assisted dying will decrease trust in “the treatment and quality of care” from doctors, scientific studies into attitude change show that more people trust doctors when assisted dying is legal. Patients can then talk openly about options, even if they decide against assisted death. The bishops have abandoned facts in favour of religious assumptions.

The equivalence fallacy

The bishops refer to assisted dying as “government endorsed suicide”. They fallaciously equate a reasoned, tested and accompanied decision for a peaceful assisted death in the face of a terminal illness, with the impulsive, violent, isolated and regrettable suicide of individuals (many of whom have mental health and substance abuse issues) who are failing to cope with problems that can be addressed.

However, while the latter are choosing between life and death, the terminally ill are choosing not between life and death, but between two different ways of dying, according to their own beliefs and conscience. Rigorous 2016 research from Australian National University shows that the vast majority (79%) of Victorians support assisted dying choice for the terminally ill (with just 8% opposed), clearly distinguishing it from general suicide.

Shame on the bishops for disrespectfully equating the two.

The inconsistency fallacy

They also argue that assisted dying ought to remain prohibited because within healthcare, “mistakes happen and the vulnerable are exploited,” and “that in spite of our best efforts, our justice system could never guarantee” no one would die by mistake or false evidence. However, as I’ve pointed out before, an identical hypothetical problem exists under the refusal of life-saving medical treatment, a statutory right that Victorians have enjoyed for nearly 30 years. The statute has only three “safeguard” requirements, yet even those only apply if the refusal is formally documented, but not if it’s verbal.

Further, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops directs that patients may refuse treatment if it imposes “excessive expense on the family or community,” yet makes no mention of the hypothetical “vulnerability” of the patient to be persuaded so, nor directs any requirements to assess the veracity of the refusal.

In stark contrast, the Victorian proposal for assisted dying legislation contains more than 60 safeguards and oversights.

The bishops are at risk of ridicule for such a gargantuan flip-flop: supporting the refusal of life-saving treatment with little or no oversight, while vocally opposing assisted dying legislation that mandates an armada of protections.

The not-so-hidden agenda

The bishops’ methods are rather unsubtle – hoping that these arguments, erroneous but carefully crafted to avoid any religious connotations, will be accepted as non-religious. Yet religion is writ large across their plea: as signatories to the letter they are all clerics employed directly and centrally in the promotion of their religions.

The authority fallacy

They might also rely on their religious status to convey gravity and authority to their pleas. Yet as people paid to do a job, like anyone else, their titles grant them no special privileges in lecturing Victorians about how they should die in the face of a terminal illness.

According to the 2016 census, just 23% of Victorians identified as Catholic, 9% as Anglican, 0.5% as Lutheran, and the other bishops’ signatory denominations so small as to not appear separately in the government’s statistics. Combined, the bishops’ faiths represent around 33% of the Victorian population, while 32% of Victorians identify with no faith at all. Surely the bishops are not arguing that they’re speaking for these other Victorians, too?

But the bishops don’t represent the views of their own flocks, either. According to the 2016 ANU study, 89% of non-religious Victorians support assisted dying law reform, as do 78% of Victorian Catholics and Anglicans. Indeed, opposition to assisted dying exists mostly among those who attend religious services once a week or more often – that is, those who are frequently exposed institutional religious messages of opposition – yet who comprise just 12% of Australians and 11% of Victorians.

Minding their own flocks

Australians are abandoning religion in droves. For example, when Freier ascended to the top job of Anglican Primate of Australia in 2006, some 19% of Australians identified as Anglican (2006 census). A decade later under his leadership, the 2016 census showed a drop of about a third to just 13%, and in Victoria, his home territory, to just 9%.

Hart’s Catholic church has experienced a drop in affiliation too, and it’s likely to continue and accelerate as Australians react with shock and disgust to the extent of child sexual abuse that the royal commission has exposed from under his organisation’s “pastoral umbrella”.

In conclusion, rather than bishops lecturing the government and Victorians with fallacious and faintly desperate arguments about the choices they shouldn’t have at the end of life, attending to their own flocks may be more useful Christian leadership.

May their God go with them in that endeavour.

 

This article was originally published in The Guardian.


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The IAHPC website home page.

In response to my previous post about the religious basis of organised opposition to assisted dying, Dr Katherine Pettus, Advocacy and Human Rights Officer at the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care (IAHPC), tweeted:

Twitter “#Catholic church @Pontifex believes all life is sacred&supports #PalliativeCare and use of strong #pain medicines” — Dr Katherine Pettus

Her just-published IAHPC ‘Concept Note’ railing against assisted dying,1 and summarised on the European Association of Palliative Care’s (EAPC) website,2confirms and amplifies precisely the point I made.

Now you’d think that an organisation with a name like ‘International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care’ would be a neutral organisation representing the world profession irrespective of the faith or personal spiritual beliefs of its members.

But you’d be quite wrong.

Nothing but Catholic doctrine

The IAHPC's musings extensively cite several Popes as the authorities on the subject of — and exclusively against — assisted dying. They expressly use the term "Table of authorities," which includes Popes. And who else?

Precisely nobody: no other faith, and no impartial scientific research, is cited. Just Popes.

She also writes:

IAHPC wishes to encourage our partners to express clear support for faith based teachings on palliative care.”

It is important to clarify this misinformation [about ‘stealth euthanasia’] with the authoritative teachings of the Church.”

Hospice has always been faith based.” [As if ‘the way it’s always been’ is a sound argument for ‘the way it always should be.’ Perhaps we shouldn’t have moved from serfdom to democracy?]

The Catholic Church began the medieval hospice movement, and can lead the modern palliative care movement.” [They curiously neglect to mention that the palliative care (not hospice) movement rose from Anglican roots in the UK, helpfully confirming that this broadcast is primarily about promoting Catholic religion, not palliative care.]
 

Shameless self-promotion

But Dr Pettus and the IAHPC’s Concept Note don’t stop there.

The Word [sic] Day of the Sick (WDS) is a good opportunity to support faith based healthcare organizations.”

Contact your parish to see if you can hold a small event…”

Contact your local Catholic health care provider director to find out about…”

Make an announcement at your local church…”

Gosh, I must have been mistaken. I thought World Day of the Sick was about… the sick!?

But Dr Pettus and the IAHPC commandeer it to shamelessly further the Catholic religious agenda amongst palliative care service providers.

An unexamined conflict of interest

It's deeply disturbing that someone holding the position of “Advocacy and Human Rights Officer” considers the beliefs and values only of the service provider (who she represents) in promoting the world day about sick people (who her organisation serves).

Palliative care organisations repeatedly state that they aim to deliver patient-centred care. But the world palliative care peak body's self-adoration exposes the worst of them: taking the opportunity of a day supposedly for the values and needs of sick patients, and using it to glorify their own particular (Catholic) religious tenets which are to be lauded over those of the patients they serve.

Most of the world is not Catholic, and in Australia at least, most Catholics disagree with Vatican doctrine on assisted dying.

How astonishing then to dictate that Catholic doctrine must prevail over everyone, including Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and others. Dr Pettus and the IAHPC comprehensively fail to demonstrate any awareness or reflection of potential conflicts of interest in serving people of different faiths and beliefs.

Incomprehensible arrogance

There is little issue with the Catholic Church directing its own willing adherents as to how they might end their days.

But for one religious institution to seek to impose its views on everyone worldwide is incomprehensibly arrogant. I guess it's no surprise then that a Catholic Bishop recently admitted — at a Royal Commission inquiry into the extensive, ongoing and horrific abuse of children under the Church's pastoral care — that the Catholic Church is a "law unto itself".

It would be helpful if the Holy See reflected on the principle: is it legitimate for another faith to force its own views on the Vatican or on Catholic patients?

It would also be helpful if the International Association of Hopsice and Palliative Care reflected on respecting and serving the wider community rather than behaving like a subsidiary of the Holy See.

Conclusion

The IAHPC has provided its own unequivocal proof that it is religious conservatism behind organised opposition to assisted dying, with the Catholic Church at the front of the pack.

You’ll understand why I tweeted in response to Dr Pettus:

Twitter.@kpettus @EAPCOnlus Thanks for confirming @Pontifex arrogance. Not once did you mention PATIENT’S PoV. All about YOU.” — Neil Francis

 

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And furthermore

Parading ignorance

The IAHPC refers repeatedly to the treatment of ‘pain’ in its stand against assisted dying law reform. But pain is not amongst the leading reasons for assisted dying (it is a much less common reason). Key reasons are the inability to participate in any of life’s enjoyable activities, loss of independence and loss of dignity.

I guess the curious focus on ‘pain’ is understandable though, because the Vatican is very fond of the doctrine of double effect (DDE) — which the IAHPC specifically notes in Catholic Catechism 2279 although not by its DDE name, but rather bizarrely as “a special form of disinterested charity.”

The DDE posits that it’s OK for a doctor to administer high doses of analgesics to treat pain, even if an unintended consequence is to hasten the patient’s death. The Catholic Church treats this doctrine as uncontroversial, even though it remains controversial amongst other ethicists and philosophers: the principle says “it’s quite OK for a doctor to kill her patient, as long as she doesn’t really mean to.”

I would commend Dr Pettus and the IAHPC to do some proper research and understand the subject area more competently before pontificating (yes, intended meaning) further.

The smokescreen argument

The IAHPC also states that:

No country or state should consider the legalization of euthanasia or PAS until it ensures universal access to palliative care services.”

That’s purely a smokescreen argument for two reasons. Firstly, the Concept Note also argues that assisted dying:

both violate[s] the bond of trust within the profession of medicine, and undermine[s] the integrity of the profession and the dedication to safeguard human life.”

Setting aside the empirical falsehood of the statement, it furnishes the IAHPC a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card if and when palliative care becomes ‘universally’ available: it’s utterly irrelevant if that goal is reached because there’s a more fundamental objection behind it.

Secondly, it's an established fact that palliative care can’t always help, even when the best services are available. ‘Universal’ access won’t fix all the problems.

All these faux arguments are typical and common from religious opponents of assisted dying.

 

References

  1. International Association for Hospice & Palliative Care 2017, Concept note: Palliative care organisations support World Day of the Sick (WDS), IAHPC, viewed 11 Feb 2017, https://hospicecare.com/uploads/2017/1/concept-note-world-day-of-the-sick-2017.docx.
  2. Pettus, K 2017, Palliative care: A special form of disinterested charity, EAPC, viewed 11 Feb 2017, https://eapcnet.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/palliative-care-a-special-form-of-disinterested-charity/.

 


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St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Donaldytong

Against current moves to legalise assisted dying, Australian Catholic Father John George invokes Nazi Germany, resorts to ad hominem attacks to dismiss those who disagree with him, and demands that the Pope’s edicts are binding on everyone regardless of their own faith or world view.

On 24th September 2016, Journalists Greg Brown and Rick Morton published an article in The Australian, Victorian coroner credited with turning tide on euthanasia, summarising recent Australian moves to legalise assisted dying choice.

Catholic Father John George commented on the article online, quoting four sections of the Catholic Church’s catechism that prohibit assisted dying (sections 2276–9).

Pushback

Other readers of The Australian remarked that they respected his view for himself but they had no interest in the Pope’s views given the readers were not Catholic. In fact, repeated polls in Australia have shown that even the great majority of Catholics (three out of four) do not agree with the Vatican on the matter of assisted dying, a matter which Fr George dismisses merely as ‘fickle votes and polls.’

I would remind Fr George that these are not fickle: Australian public opinion in favour of assisted dying choice has been consistently in the majority for now more than four decades.

Fr George further quoted Catholic sources, for example the LJ Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth, Australia, which he failed to mention is, literally, an agency of the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth. He also selectively quoted Palliative Care Australia, failing to mention that they have acknowledged that not all pain and suffering can be eliminated at the end of life, even with the best palliative care.

Ad hominem attack

In response to a rising tide of objections to his musings, including from Mr Ian Wood, a fellow Christian and co-founder of Christians for Voluntary Euthanasia Choice, Fr George resorted to the ad hominem attack: to attack the person (or persons) rather than the arguments. He said:

“The pro euthanasia claque here make professional Nazi propaganda expert Goebbels look like a 5th rate amateur.” — Father John George.

For anyone in the dark, a claque is a group of sycophants hired to applaud a performer or public speaker. How rude. Fr George seems to have neglected to reflect that it is he who is hired to promote the performance of the Vatican. I applaud his right to do so, and I do not compare him to a treacherous propagandist in a murderous wartime regime in order to dismiss his arguments: I address the arguments themselves.

Nazi Germany

Fr George makes repeated mentions of Nazi Germany as a core reason to deny assisted dying choice.

In contrast, several years ago I was chatting at a conference with the pleasant and engaging Peter McArdle, then Research Director of the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference. He volunteered that he very much disliked the “Nazi Germany” argument so often used in religious circles, and wished it would stop because in so doing it meant they’d already lost the debate.

I agree. It’s a lazy and indefensible argument: that rational people in a functioning democracy must be denied choice for themselves on the basis of what some murderous regime did against others at the point of a gun.

Indeed, to rely on such a standard would be to equally argue against the right to religious practice, because the Catholic Church, through its inquisition practices (medieval C12th, papal C13th, Spanish C15th, Roman and Portuguese C16th) relied on torture and resulted in confiscation of property and at least tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of executions for witchcraft and heresy.

Ultimate hubris

But the real crux is that Fr George then unequivocally demands that:

“Principles elaborated by the pope are universally applicable.” — Father John George.

This ultimate hubris reveals a profound lack of self-reflection, both personally and organisationally. Even entertaining for a moment the premise that one individual (or even organisation) can tell everyone on the planet how they must live their lives, how would we choose that person or organisation? Why is it less valid for the head of any other branch of Christianity, of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism (or any other religion) or an agnostic (which I am) or an atheist, to set such rules for everyone, overriding other deeply-held beliefs and values?

A keener example of ‘blinded by faith’ would be hard to find.

Conclusion

I argue that Fr John George displays some of the gravest hubris of some members of the Catholic church. I respect and applaud his world views for himself and those who wish to subscribe. But using canonincal arguments (that is, religious arguments demanded as universally true by virtue of the supposed authority that dispensed them) is probably a major contributor to the current flight of people away from organised religion.

More happily, such an attitude is also contributing to accelerating the legalisation of assisted dying choice because folks can see these arguments for what they are. For that I doff my hat to Fr George.


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