Religion

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Catholic Archbishop of Canberra/Goulburn Christopher Prowse. CC: Bart-1011

Last month, the Catholic Archbishop of Canberra & Goulburn, Christopher Prowse, published an opinion piece about VAD in the Canberra Times. Naturally, Prowse's views were opposed, which is fine. A range of views is always welcome. Misinformation, however, is not.

It would be unreasonable to expect that the opinion editor of the Canberra Times, Andrew Thorpe, would be intimately versed in the empirical evidence about voluntary assisted dying (VAD). So, it was reasonable that he publish an opinion piece on the topic offered by Archbishop Prowse. What is not reasonable, however, is that the counter-opinion I promptly submitted, pointing out several points of significant misinformation, was not published. A month later, still nothing.

A critical feature of high-quality, mainstream media journalism (which includes editorialism) is to ensure that the public can be exposed to a range of views on important topics, and that those views are generally devoid of significant misinformation. I argue that the Canberra Times has profoundly failed in this instance, and could profitably reflect on improving its conduct.

Here's the op-ed I sent, which they failed to publish.

 

Archbishop Prowse sadly misinformed on assisted dying

Catholic Archbishop Christopher Prowse’s recent editorial against voluntary assisted dying (VAD) (Canberra Times, 11 Aug) contains numerous items of misinformation about the practice. While a range of views is welcome, misinformation is not an acceptable standard in public debate about such an important topic.

Unsurprisingly, Archbishop Prowse argues that more palliative care is “the answer” to end-of-life suffering. This ignores formal statements by both Palliative Care Australia and the Australian and New Zealand Society for Palliative Medicine acknowledging that even the best palliative care can’t address all extreme suffering. It’s not like he wouldn’t know: the Catholic church is the largest single institutional provider of palliative care services in the nation.

His editorial also paints VAD deaths as “fearful”, “depressed” and “lonely”. This not only contradicts evidence published in peer-reviewed scientific research and official reports from lawful jurisdictions, but is a slap in the face to those who have chosen a VAD death, and to their families.

For example, the second person to use WA’s VAD law was Mary-Ellen Passmore. Her family and friends gathered to say farewell and sang Hallelujah together during her final moments. Loved ones of those who have accessed VAD in Victoria have described the experience as “peaceful” and “beautiful”.

Ms Passmore was also an indigenous community leader. This is relevant because Prowse argues that indigenous Australians would be fearful of VAD law, avoiding needed medical services.

This old chestnut has been rattling around since the Northern Territory VAD days in the 1990s, but was dismissed as false after a formal investigation found no change in indigenous medical service attendance. Indeed, a parliamentary inquiry heard that it was church members [not referring to Prouse or his diocesan colleagues] who were causing any indigenous fears.

Prowse also enlists “elder abuse” into his supposed army of the “vulnerable”. But a key feature of elder abuse is that it’s commissioned in secret, while VAD has numerous points of assessment, referral, review and documentation by trained professionals.

Perhaps the most egregious misrepresentation is his claim that “reasons for euthanasia quickly expand once legalised”, levelling specific claims about the Netherlands.

In fact, the Netherlands made VAD lawful by regulation in the mid-1980s. Several test cases in following years clarified that certain conditions (like extreme and unrelievable mental suffering) qualified under the regulations. These were formalised (not changed) in legislation in 2001. And that legislation hasn’t changed since. Not. One. Word.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the archbishop represents the views of Catholic Australians. But this isn’t true either. ANU studies show that some three quarters of Catholic Australians support lawful VAD.

I analysed the major 2019 data set of VoxPop — the academics who run VoteCompass — about VAD attitudes in the archbishop’s own archdiocese. It comprises the ACT and the NSW electorates of Bega, Cootamundra, Goulburn, Monaro, and about a third of Wagga Wagga.

With a VoxPop respondent count across the archdiocese of more than 34,000 people, four out of five voters favour lawful VAD with just 9% opposed. Not only that, but more than three out of four Catholic voters (76%) in the archdiocese favour lawful VAD, with just 13% opposed.

canberravadattitudes2019.gif
Voter attitudes toward VAD in the Canberra-Goulburn Catholic Archdiocese
Source: VoteCompass/VoxPop 2019.
~ Archdiocese totals weighted by elector count per district, Wagga Wagga weighted as 1/3 of.

Thus, not only does Archbishop Prowse seem unfamiliar with VAD facts, he seems remarkably unacquainted with the real views of his own flock.

Prowse argues that we are all “made in the image of God so we have dignity”. As an agnostic I’m happy for him to believe such things, though I say that everyone has dignity and life is precious regardless.

But when the archbishop proclaims that allowing VAD is “abandonment” of the person and that his views must prevail over all Australians, I call out hubris. “Abandonment” is to deliberatively seek to quash the deeply-held values and beliefs of others.

Most Australians, including Catholic ones, agree.

 


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"HOPE's" Branka van der Linden and the ACA misrepresent figures, again

Here we go again. Branka van der Linden of Catholic anti-VAD website “HOPE”, and the Australian Care Alliance — endorsed by a number of well-known, committed Catholic doctors — have just published more egregious misinformation against VAD. This time they've collectively piled it on Victoria's general suicide statistics, recently updated by the Victorian Coroner. So what did they say, and how did it misrepresent the actual situation? Let's take a look.

The reason the statistics are being discussed is because in 2017, Victoria's parliament legalised voluntary assisted dying (VAD) for the terminally ill. The law came into effect halfway through 2019, and 2020 was the first full year of its operation.

Australian Care Alliance gets the basics wrong

Here's the Australian Care Alliance's (ACA) splashy page trumpeting that Victoria's suicide rate has jumped 21.2% from 694 in 2017 to 842 in 2020.

acagetsstatswrongmarch2021.jpgFigure 1: ACA's splashy page trumpeting a 21.2% increase in Victorian suicides

That's... interesting. According to the Victorian coroner's official figures, there were indeed 694 suicides in Victoria in 2017. However, in 2020 the coroner's figure is actually 698, not 842 as claimed by the ACA. According to the ACA, Victoria's suicide count data looks like this (Figure 2).

acasuiciefigurewrong2021.gifFigure 2: The ACA polemically claims that Victoria's suicide count has increased 21.2%

So, how did the ACA reach a count of 842? Well, their argument is to shamefully and humiliatingly disrespect Victoria's terminally ill who died peacefully under its VAD law in 2020 — 144 of them according to the official 2020 reports of Victoria's Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board — and add them to the coronial count of 698 suicides.

The ACA points out that VAD supporters have said that legalising VAD should decrease Victoria's general suicides by about 50 cases a year, but say the count's gone up substantially instead. See how they craftily deploy logical fallacy to fabricate a crisis?

Arguing that VAD law must reduce the suicide count by 50 cases a year (but seemingly didn't) and at the same time adding VAD cases to the suicide count to complain that it's gone up, requires at least three assumptions:

  1. that all terminally ill violent suiciders now automatically qualify for and easily gain access to VAD; and
  2. that nobody else with a terminal illness who would not have chosen violent suicide, should or would use the law; and
  3. that no other factors make a significant difference to trends in general suicides.

 
All these assumptions are patently false.

Obviously, some people will not legally qualify for VAD; for example, amongst its restrictions it requires death to be expected with 6 months; 12 months for a small set of specific illnesses.

Obviously, some who would not have suicided but instead would suffer intolerably and against their wishes until death, will now choose to pursue VAD.

And obviously, well-known factors such as rates of mental illness, substance abuse, intimate relationship troubles, bullying, financial or legal difficulties, and other factors are major influencers of general suicide rates. But to the ACA, the only factor that supposedly has any effect is the one they are ideologically opposed to: VAD.

It's worrisome that this nonsense is sold to the public by ACA's supposed experts: “health professionals and lawyers”.

Cherry-picked overseas data, too

The ACA's ideological bias is further revealed by their website page about the “social contagion of suicide”. In it, they cite as authoritative, the 2015 Jones and Paton (both firm Catholics) article purporting to show 6.3% suicide contagion from VAD to the general population. I've comprehensively exposed that article as an ideologically-driven mathematical farce fuelled by no fewer than ten major scientific offenses. It's interesting that the ACAs methodology is just like Jones' and Patons': reporting VAD supporter statements that legalisation should decrease the general suicide rate, and then adding VAD deaths to conclude the opposite.

They also commit one of Jones' and Patons' other offences: selectively quoting data from other studies that might be seen to support their theory, but excluding critical alternative information from the same study that runs counter to the theory.

The ACA cites a Swiss study to breathlessly report that 6.5% of those who witnessed an assisted death in that country experienced sub-threshold PTSD, and 13% full PTSD. The ACA expressly states:

“Like any other suicide, assisted suicide can profoundly affect surviving family members and friends.” — The Australian Care Alliance

There you have it: the ACA draws a direct equivalence between peaceful VAD deaths in the face of terminal illness and with loved ones present, and lonely, violent deaths by general suicide.

The ACA cites no other relevant material from the Swiss article. That's revealing, because the article clearly reported that the PTSD rates were higher than in the general population. There's what the ACA left out: the PTSD rates were higher than for almost everyone else who hadn't just suffered the loss of a loved one.

To draw valid and meaningful interpretations, it is necessary to compare the bereavement challenges of VAD family versus families of general deaths, deaths in the face of extreme suffering without hastened death, and cases of violent suicide. As I've published before from peer-reviewed studies, bereavement symptoms of VAD family are at least as good as, and can be better than those where the deceased has suffered in extremis at the end of life, and certainly relative to violent suicides.

The ACA also doesn't mention that the Swiss study found a "prevalence of complicated grief ... comparable to that reported for the general Swiss population". It's not like the information was hard to find. It's right there in the Abstract on the front page of the article.

That the ACA cherry-picked a couple of Swiss data points while omitting key “unhelpful” information, and argued, by linking the selected cherries with the above quote, that said Swiss data established something it clearly did not (that VAD deaths supposedly cause similar family trauma as violent suicides), suggests an astonishing degree of ignorance.

The ACA's cherry-picking of data, while omitting key unhelpful information, suggests an astonishing degree of ignorance.

Enough of that.

Branka van der Linden cherry-picks, too

I've crossed pens (or is that keyboards?) with Ms van der Linden several times before in regard to misinformation. She misinforms on this matter, too.

Curiously, like the ACA and also without explanation, she cherry-picks just the 2017 and 2020 suicide counts from the Victorian coroner's report (Figure 3). You'd think this was the only data in the report, but no, it isn't.

vanderlindenvicsuicidestats2021.gifFigure 3: Branca van der Linden's version of Victorian suicide counts by year

She uses these two figures to argue that said drop of 50 cases per year hasn't happened. This employs the same fallacies as the ACA: suggesting that two single data points strongly support a hypothesis, and assuming that the thing one is ideologically opposed to, VAD, is the only thing to alter the rate of general suicides over time.

Like the ACA, she also suggests adding the VAD figures to the coroner's general suicide data to say that in that case, suicides have increased significantly.

Both the Australian Care Alliance and Branca van der Linden cherry-pick just two data points from more full and robust longitudinal data to try and argue their case against VAD.

So what does the coroner's full data set look like?

The actual numbers

The Victorian coroner's 2021 report into suicides contains data for all years 2016 to 2020 inclusive. And it looks like this (Figure 4).

viccoronersuicides2021.gifFigure 4: The complete set of data from the Victorian coroner's report on suicide counts per year

Now we're beginning to see a possible reason as to why the ACA and Ms van der Linden chose just two data points. Remember that VAD was legalised by the Victorian parliament in 2017. The law was not in effect for 2017, 2018, or the first half of 2019.

Well, the data clearly suggests an increasing suicide count trend up to 2018. The upward trend stops in 2019, when VAD was in operation for the second half of the year. And in 2020, the first full operational year of VAD, the upward trend has been interrupted by a downward result. Neither the ACL nor Ms van der Linden mention this.

Neither the Australian Care Alliance nor Branca van der Linden mention the fuller, longitudinal data that doesn't support, and indeed appears hostile to, their hypothesis.

Update 19-Mar-2021

I thought it so obvious that I didn't write it up, but a colleague points out it's important to highlight, that in picking just two data points to stake their claim, the ACA and Ms van der Linden chose 2017, and not 2018, as their reference year. To compare “after” with “before” in the most basicly valid manner (full longitudinal data is better), it is appropriate to compare the last data point that completely excludes the new condition (VAD law in operation), with the first data point that fully includes it.

Those years are 2018 (none of the year) and 2020 (all of the year). But the ACA and Ms van der Linden didn't pick 2018, they picked 2017.

What possible reason might explain that? Well, by comparing 2017 with 2020, they got to say that the general suicide count increased by 2 from 694 to 698. However, had they more validly compared 2018 with 2020, they would have had to report a drop of 19 from 717 to 698.

And that would have contradicted their flimsy confection that suicides hadn't gone down after VAD was introduced.

But even the raw suicide count statistics are a bit misleading.

Interpreting suicide data correctly

Using raw counts to compare suicide statistics (e.g. year to year or place to place) is lazy and wrong. All other things being equal, if you had twice the population, you'd expect twice the suicide count. To make valid comparisons, you have to compare rates, not raw counts. This is relevant because populations obviously change over time, and Victoria between 2016 and 2020 was no exception.

I've retrieved the official Victorian population figures by year and computed the standard official suicide rate statistic: suicides per 100,000 population. The Victorian suicide rates look like this (Figure 5):

vicsuiciderate2016-2020.gifFigure 5: Victorian suicides per 100k population by year

The data shows a rising suicide rate from 2016 to 2018, a levelling off in 2019 in which VAD was operational for half the year, and a fall back to the 2016 rate in 2020, the first full operational year of VAD.

Computing from the rate drop between 2018 (11.4 with no VAD law) and 2020 (10.8, first full year of VAD law), the equivalent count of suicide decrease in 2020 was 38 persons. And that's without assuming the general suicide rate would have continued its rising trend.

The equivalent suicide decrease from 2018 to 2020 was 38 persons.

Getting all the numbers right

The ACA correctly cites then Minister for Health, Ms Jill Hennessy, as stating in 2017 that "Evidence from the coroner indicated that one terminally ill Victorian was taking their life each week." That would be 52 cases a year, which the ACA rounds out to 50 a year. The headline figure from the coroner's report actually calculates to 48. No biggie, just round numbers.

But the figure is quite wrong. You have to read the coroner's special 2017 report to the Victorian parliament regarding suicides in cases of illness, to calculate the correct numbers.

The coroner's report didn't just include suicide data for terminally ill people. It also included cases of advanced incurable but not terminal illness, and cases of severe suffering resulting from injuries. So the terminal illness data (to which the VAD law is relevant) is a fraction of the total. We can calculate from the Tables in the report that 23% of the cases were in respect of injuries, so that leaves 77% for terminal and other advanced illnesses.

Of the illnesses listed, the relevant one as a proxy measure for terminal illness is “cancer”, and that comprises 50% of the illness cases. So, 50% of 77% of 48 cases a year = 19 cases a year in respect of terminal illness.

So that's an actual likely decrease of 19 suicide cases a year, compared with an equivalent drop in the actual data of 38 persons in the first full year.

The actual annual count of general suicides in respect of terminal illness, as reported to the Victorian parliament by the state coroner in 2017, was 19 persons a year, and not 50 as widely stated.

Don't get carried away

It's imporant to note that citing this interesting numeric analysis as “proof” of the law's effectiveness in respect of reducing Victoria's suicide rate, would, at present, be an overconfident claim. While far more firmly based in proper forms of evidence than the vapid nonsense promoted by the ACA and Ms van der Linden, this is a correlation. Correlation does not equal causation: the ACA and Ms van der Linden should remember that. For example, 2020 was a very unusual, Covid-19-dominated annus horribilis, which may have affected suicide rates in unexpected ways.

While the coroner's fuller data set so far is consistent with reasoned expectations of suicide substitution, it is premature to conclude the data proves the principle. More years' data, and more detailed, causative analysis involving the control of confounding factors, is necessary before reaching greater certainty in the association.

But as I've published in detailed and extensive analyses based on robust official data, so far all the longitudinal data on suicide rates in jurisdictions where VAD is lawful is consistent with suicide substitution, not suicide contagion. Some VAD opponents just cherry-pick their way through tidbits to try and argue the opposite.

To date, all the robust, longitudinal data on suicides in jurisdictions where VAD is lawful is consistent with suicide substitution, not suicide contagion.

Conclusion

The Australian Care Alliance and Ms van der Linden disgracefully cherry-pick and misrepresent Victoria's recent suicide data in a manner consistent with their own theories, while proper and appropriate analysis of the full data available shows results inconsistent with their hypothesis, and currently consistent with the opposite.

To paraphrase Ms van der Linden's own statement: “It is unfortunate that the deaths of terminally ill Victorians were politicised so shamelessly by [anti-]euthanasia activists for their own ends.”

These continued cherry-picked data gaffes are an embarrassment to their promoters.


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Home of the bible society in Launceston, from where the ACL's latest media release was launched

"Bullshit!"

That was the reaction of Dutch Senator Erik Jurgens when I asked him about a Dutch euthanasia anecdote spread by Mr Paul Russell, then head of the Australian anti-VAD Catholic front organisation "HOPE". In 2011, Mr Russell had been spreading the story:

"I often use the story of the death of a 26 year old ballerina in Holland [sic]. She had contracted a form of arthritis at this young age and her dancing career and dreams were dashed. An American oncologist who spoke later to the killing doctor reported the Dutch medico as saying something like 'One doesn't like doing it, but it was her choice.'" — Paul Russell, "HOPE" [my emphasis]

(Note: "Holland" comprises just the two north-west provinces of the Netherlands. "Holland" and "the Netherlands" are not correctly substitutable terms. The Dutch euthansia Act applies to the whole of the Netherlands, not to just two provinces.)

Checking with authoritative sources

In 2012, I travelled across the Netherlands with camera in tow, interviewing key stakeholders in the nation's assisted dying law about its operation. Nobody had heard of the supposed ballerina case, including long-serving politicians, the Royal Dutch Medical Association, nor even Professor Theo Boer or the Dutch Patient Rights Association who actively oppose the law.

robinbernhoffoncamera.jpgUSA doctor Dr Robin Bernhoft muses about a Dutch ballerina nobody in the Netherlands has heard of

It turns out that the meme was a bit of unverified nonsense put about by USA Catholic radio- and televangelist Dr Robin Bernhoft in an early 1990s polemic anti-VAD video, "False Light", narrated by staunch Catholic actor Joseph Campanella. Dr Bernhoft has castigated believers in evolution as "sexually immoral, abortion supporters, racists and violators of each of the Commandments".

In the video, Dr Bernhoft often gazes nonchalantly into the distance, or at his hands, as he narrates his stories. It's all very third-hand and mysterious, conspicuously devoid of even the faintest whiff of evidence. But Dr Bernhoft doesn't claim to have actually spoken to the doctor, as Mr Russell states. Perhaps the confidently stated direct-contact idea is a signal of confirmation bias.

Those little Dutch cards

Confidence was also common amongst VAD opponents, like Oregon Nurse Donna Howell also featured in "False Light", spreading the nonsense that the Dutch wander around carrying little cards pleading for protection from being killed.

"It's gotten so bad in Holland [sic] that people have in their wallets little cards that say 'Do not euthanise me without my permission'." — Nurse Donna Howell

donnahowelloncamera.jpgUSA Nurse Donna Howell confidently says the Dutch carry little cards saying 'do not euthanise me'

Just like the supposed ballerina, nobody I interviewed across the Netherlands, including the anti-VAD Patient Rights Association which would be the natural source of "little cards" for patients, had ever heard of the little cards, either.
 

Update 13-Oct-2020

A colleague reminds me of an event that's important and very revealing in this context. On 23rd February 2012, the President of the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) wrote to the President of the American Medical Association in response to "inadequacies" in Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum's statements about assisted dying practice and its supposed consequences in the Netherlands.

Mr Santorum, amongst other things, claimed that the Dutch wear bracelets saying "do not euthanise me". Notice how there can be random small, yet conspicuous, mutations in misinformational anecdotes.

The KNMG was unequivocal in its professional advice: "'Do not euthanise me' bracelets do not exist." The KNMG President closed with the observation that:

"Interpretations about the practice of euthanasia in other countries should not be biased by personal opinions whether or not euthanasia is justificed in situations of unbearable suffering without prospect of improvement."

The architect of the Dutch euthanasia law, Dr Els Borst, arguably the most informed stakeholder of the era, responded to the "little cards" claim in plainer language:

"That is an absolute lie." — Els Borst

A diet of evidence-less anecdotes

Anecdotes — devoid of verifiable evidence — about supposed dangers are a favourite diet of VAD opponents, like the nonsense put about by the Vatican, and Catholic Professor Margaret Somerville, that Dutch elderly are streaming into Germany for hospital treatment for fear of being euthanised in the Netherlands; that Els Borst supposedly regretted her law reform; or that there's some kind of slippery slope from VAD to non-voluntary euthanasia — which Rick Santorum handily mutated into involuntary euthanasia.

The anecdote is a favourite snack of opponents for dishing out when they've run out of other confectionery.

Back to now

One's being served up again in Tasmania right now, and it smacks of desperation. In its most recent media release, the Australian Christian Lobby, from the home of the Bible Society in St John Street, Launceston, launched its latest shrill warning with the claim that:

"In a conversation with a member of the British Parliament, one Dutch doctor explained what it was like when euthanasia laws first came to the Netherlands. He said, 'We agonised over our first case of euthanasia all day, but the second case was much easier and the third was a piece of cake.'"

So let's reflect: on some unspecified date ("when euthanasia laws first came to the Netherlands": but that would be the mid 1980s) some unnamed British MP once said that an unnamed Dutch doctor once told him or her… that their third euthanasia case "was a piece of cake".

Who what now?

One only has to glance at readily-available records to see what a load of, um, how shall we put this?... bollocks, the claim is. The Australian Christian Lobby is not referring to a recent, documented, verfied fragment of evidence. Rather, the ACL has jauntily appropriated a statement from May 1998, by Lord McColl of Dulwich in the British parliament. Straight from the Hansard's mouth:

"The Dutch doctors told us: 'We agonised over our first case of euthanasia all day, but the second case was much easier and the third was a piece of cake.'" — Lord McColl

"Dutch doctors": plural. However, the statement is not of the kind that would be said by a broad collective of doctors as Lord McColl story relates.

Indeed, in 2006 his Hansard story mutated to "when a Dutch doctor was asked...". Suddenly from multiple doctors to just one; from direct, personal receipt of the claim, to the claim being made to an unspecified audience, stated in the tell-tale passive voice. If it were really said to you and you wanted to punch home a key point in a spirited on-the-record debate, you wouldn't forget, and you'd make a point that it was said to you, wouldn't you?

Piling up the anecdotes

What else has Lord McColl had to say about the Holland [sic] experience on the Hansard record in 2006? Ah, the "little cards" anecdote, still doing the rounds more than a decade after its invention:

"Many elderly people in Holland [sic] are so fearful of euthanasia that they carry cards around with them saying that they do not want it." — Lord McColl

An anecdotal claim without at least one independent, verifiable source isn't really evidence at all. It's just a myth. A handy but hollow sound bite. It reveals little about the subject... but rather a more about the claimant.

The "piece of cake" anecdote, like those before and since, are just myths conjured up to curry fear, uncertainty and doubt. Piling them up doesn't make them any more true.

Conclusion

As I put one anecdotal claim after another to each of my interviewees across the Netherlands, including VAD opponents, they'd roll their eyes and give courteous replies to the effect that, as one interviewee generously put it, "nobody in the Netherlands takes such commentary seriously."

But I think I prefer Senator Erik Jurgens' parsimony: Bullshit.

And if history is any guide it won't be long before the next re-moistened cowpat is heaved at the political reform fan in the hope that some of it sticks.


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Deep and extensive Catholic connections are behind supposedly secular attacks on VAD.

A friend pointed out to me an opinion piece published this week in MercatorNet that slams Victoria's voluntary assisted dying (VAD) law. Written about an elderly woman with cancer who used the law to die peacefully, it's an angry diatribe written by the woman’s granddaughter-in-law: one Mrs Madeleine Dugdale.

Update 21-Sep-2020

Mrs Madeleine Dugdale's article has been withdrawn from MercatorNet without explanation. Here's a screenshot of the original.

dugdalegranscreenshot620.jpg

And this is Mrs Dougdale's "about" page after the article was withdrawn.

madeleinedugdaleatmercatornet2020_620.jpg

While it's far from my preferred practice to take on someone recently bereaved, Mrs Dugdale has put herself and her family firmly in the public square by publishing an editorial about her grandmother's death (actually her husband’s gran) the very day after she died.

All is not as it seems and a response is required.

Catholic talking points

Let's not beat about the bush: Mrs Dugdale's piece is a grotesque misrepresentation of Victoria's VAD law and relies on gallingly distorted framing. Despite not mentioning faith, religion or Catholicism, her opinion piece ticks most Catholic talking-point boxes I've pointed out previously, such as Mrs Dugdale’s:

  • Headlining that her gran was not in particular pain. We already know from extensive overseas experience that pain is a less common reason behind why people consider VAD.
  • Being sure to emphasise the death was a suicide, and that "suicide is not courageous, it's an horrendous act of desperation and defeat".
  • Linking it to loneliness caused by Covid-19 lockdown.
  • Shabbily inferring that doctors did not discuss and offer all and anything palliative care could bring to bear, when there's a consultation process mandated by law.
  • Suggesting that palliative care could alleviate all intolerable suffering, but which both palliative care peak bodies in Australia concede is not possible.
  • Scandalously implying that medical care workers were forced to participate in her assisted death against their will, when the law protects anyone who wishes to decline.
  • Suggesting her gran's choice was an issue of mental health, implying that she wasn't fit to decide, when in fact doctors must confirm decisional capacity.
  • Describing the process as "obfuscation and secrecy" when a strong chain of documentary evidence is mandated, while no process is mandated for the Catholic church's own accepted patient path to foreseeable death: refusal of life-saving medical treatment.

 

Mrs Dugdale employs no fewer than eight Catholic church talking points in her attack on Victoria's VAD law.

Spurned "help"

Also of note is Mrs Dugdale's description that she and her husband were "silenced" and "quickly shut down" so there was "little my husband and I could do to help." Did the family actually want help of the kind Mrs Dugdale and her husband were determined to dispense?

One wonders what Mrs Dugdale's gran would think if she could see how a granddaughter-in-law had sought to weaponise her choice for VAD, against the law itself.

Update 24-Sep-2020

We now know what gran's immediate family thought of Madelein Dugdale's savage misrepresentation of their mum's death. It's not pretty, and they've asked Madeleine for a written apology. Read the full story at Go Gentle Australia.

Who is Madelaine Dugdale?

So who is Mrs Madelaine Dugdale? Her article bio reports only that she's a former Melbourne high school teacher and now a full-time mum of four with one on the way. Move along, nothing to see here…

Well, it’s worth looking a bit more carefully, elsewhere. Mrs Dugdale graduated from (Catholic) Campion College. And that high school where she worked? St Kevin’s (Catholic) College in Toorak, Melbourne, where she taught… religion.

She's a leading member of Catholic Voices Australia, whose purpose is "putting the Church's case in the public square."

So in summary, this anti-VAD diatribe bristling with Catholic church misinformation was penned by a leading member of Catholic Voices Australia whose remit is "putting the Church's case in the public square", but which failed to identify that religious connection and attempted to give the appearance of secular impartiality.

If there's any remaining doubt about Mrs Dugdale's Catholic devotion, here she is discussing the Pope's amoris laetetia (the joy of love) book with Fr Tony Kerin, an Episcopal Vicar for Life, Marriage and Family in Melbourne.

Hidden religious petticoats indeed.

And who is the publisher?

Mrs Dugdale's anti-VAD tirade is published online by the masthead MercatorNet. It declares itself to be "dignitarian", and reveals that its Editor is a Catholic who believes in God. The masthead is named after Gerardus Mercator, the C16th cradle Catholic cartographer.

MercatorNet's About webpage opines that "religion adds clarity and conviction to the task of defending human dignity" — as if that's an exclusive province or even necessary feature of "religion" — and insists that arguments it publishes are "based on universally accepted moral principles, common sense and evidence, not faith."

Pfft.

Another invitation to "dig here"

Methinks they doth protest too much. It doesn't take much effort to peel back the veneer of neutrality.

MercatorNet is a trading name of the company New Media Foundation Ltd. (For reference, another of its trading names is BioEdge, which has the same Editor as MercatorNet, but we'll get to that later.) It's a company limited by guarantee; a registered charity established in 2005 and based in NSW.

Oddly, its 2019 ACNC records claim 2 full-time and 10 casual employees for a full-time equivalent (FTE) of 5. However, their total payroll expenditure as lodged, "Editor fees", was less than $38k. But If FTE is 5, then that's an average of just $7,600 per full-time annum. A minimum wage of $16/h over a year, without holiday leave, would equate to around $27k per person, times 5 would make a total minimum lawful payroll budget of $135k per annum. Hmmm.

Other major expenses were website maintenance and hosting ($26k), paying contributors ($18k), and insurance ($4k).

The company's bare-bones website mysteriously states only that its mission is "to help people navigate modern complexities in a way that respects the fullness of human dignity."

Of its masthead MercatorNet, the company’s website says only that the outlet is "dignitarian" and "doesn't want to be trapped on one or the other side of the culture wars". Of its BioEdge masthead it says that it's "completely independent".

Double pfft.

Who controls the company?

According to ASIC's records, the four registered Directors of New Media Foundation Ltd are Romano and Francine Pirola, Jude Hennessy and Michael Cook. Romano Pirola is the Chairperson, yet it is Michael Cook and Jude Hennessy who signed off the company's latest financial statements. Who are these people?

Romano Pirola and his wife Mavis were Joint Chairs of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, which advises the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. They were appointed by the Pope in 2014 as one of just 14 married couples worldwide to participate in the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. They've been awarded the church's honour of Knight and Dame of the order of St Gregory for services to the Church, and in 2016 were awarded honorary doctorates by Australian Catholic University.

Francine Pirola is the wife of Byron Pirola, Romano and Mavis Pirola's son. Francine and Byron were awarded honours by Pope Francis in 2019, are directors of the Catholic Marriage Resource Centre (which, incidentally, acknowledges that Catholic wedding numbers have been falling for 25 years) and were joint Chairs (like Byron's parents before them) of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council. They've even represented the Australian Catholic Bishops at meetings of the Pontifical Council of the Family.

They're also the couple whose investment company loaned anti-marriage-equality lobby group Marriage Alliance $1.67m in support of anti-LGBTI flyers handed out to children on school buses. The Crikey exposé makes further interesting reading.

Jude Hennesy is director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong. It's responsible for "special religious education" in state schools.

Michael Cook is Editor of both MercatorNet and BioEdge. He's been a member of the devout lay Catholic group, Opus Dei for more than four decades. Unlike MercatorNet's About page, BioEdge's own About page doesn't mention religious links of any kind, and says it's "completely independent".

All four directors of MercatorNet's controlling company are very deeply and strongly invested in the Catholic church. One of them, Michael Cook, is its Editor.

MercatorNet's remit

Back in October 2016 I did a keyword breakdown of articles published by MercatorNet. In the then 11 years of its existence, assuming no articles were taken down, it had published more than 2,000 articles containing the word "Catholic". That's a lot for a small outlet: an average of 3.5 "Catholic" articles a week, every week, for 11 years.

In comparison, there were no articles containing the word "Anglican", and just 51 containing the expression "Church of England". There were also 121 mentioning "Hindu", and 868 mentioning "Islam", with many of those negative.

New Media Foundation Ltd's ACNC record indicates its qualifying charitable purpose is "advancing education". But publishing thousands of articles mentioning religion, most of them Catholic, would seem to more fully reflect the qualifying charitable purpose of "advancing religion". But they chose "advancing education" instead — which bypasses any mention of religion.

Tellingly, every visit to and search on the MercatorNet website currently results in a pop-up that invites you to join their "influential community of truth-tellers" to "push back against post-modern relativism". That "relativism" is a pet peeve (and language) of the Catholic church.
 

mercatornetpopup.gif MercatorNet  attacks post-modern relativism: a pet peeve of the Catholic church, to be countered by "truth-tellers".

MercatorNet headlines the Catholic church's pet peeve: post-modern relativism. This is hardly surprising given its controlling company is run by Opus Dei members, Catholic church staff, and church honours recipients.

The founding of New Media Foundation Ltd

When it was founded in 2005, New Media Foundation Ltd's registered address was 296 Drummond Street, Carlton, Victoria. Significant? Decide for yourself.

That's the address of the Drummond Study Centre. And its connection? "Spiritual activities in the centre are entrusted to Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Catholic Church." Notice how the centre's name doesn't mention "Catholic" or even religion in any way, either. You have to delve through its web pages to find out.

Previous directors

Similarly, the list of former New Media Foundation Ltd company directors adds to its storyline.

One is Mr Richard Vella, who is or was the spokesperson for Opus Dei in Australia. He describes his personal relationship with God as "the greatest love of my life". Another is Fr Phillip Elias, who was ordained into Opus Dei in Rome in 2017.

Another founding director was Fr Amin Abboud, who died in 2013 and was given a full requiem mass funeral at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, presided over by church officials including Monsignor Victor Martinez, the then Regional Vicar of Opus Dei for Australia and New Zealand.

Yet another is Carolyn Moynihan, Deputy Editor of MercatorNet and frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine, "a voice for faithful Catholic laity" and a contributor to the Catholic Exchange. She rails repeatedly against the harms of marriage equality.

Get the picture?

New Media Foundation Ltd and its masthead MercatorNet's Catholic underpinnings are deep and strong.

The roots of the garden

But if you think it might simply be a small bunch of enthusiastic individuals, think again. This veritable garden of fertile Catholic plants arose from somewhere.

Where might that be? I've already pointed out seeding strategies for non-clerical commentary promoted by the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher. It's also worth pointing out that, like any other major institution that seeks to influence public policy, the Catholic church in Australia maintains a whole media and communications department.

Further, the Australian Catholic Media Council hosted the triennial Australian Catholic Communications Congress in 2018, which notably for the first time ever was held together with the Australasian Catholic Press Association (ACPA) Conference. ACPA's brief is to "give voice to Catholic perspectives on the issues of our societies". Former Vatican journalist Greg Erlandson delivered the keynote address to the joint conference, and masterclasses were held to "hone particular skills".

Not a recent phenomenon

If you think this just a recent phenomenon you'd be mistaken. Back issues of the Vatican's own newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, prove most enlightening.

At least as far back as the eighties, through the nineties and the noughties, the Vatican has been vigorous in its promotion of media engagement across Europe, Asia/Pacific and the Americas. For example, in March 1990 Pope John Paul II noted "unprecedented opportunities" to proclaim the word of God via media channels in central and eastern Europe.

In the same year, Archbishop John Foley, then President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told media workers at a Catholic world congress not to "falsely" compartmentalise their lives into private piety versus professional work subjected to commercial pressure, but instead spread Catholic "truth". He also schooled filmmakers amongst the gathering that "great films are 'at least implicitly religious'".

The Vatican and its 'authorities' repeatedly cajole Catholics into "truth-telling", which means evangelising the church's stances.

Ongoing evangelisation focus

Pope John Paul II repeated his firm wish for more mass media coverage in a major address in 1992, and a follow-on note in the same year encouraged USA Catholic journalists to "put their professional skills at the service of the Gospel".
 

massmedianeedscatholicpresence.gifThe Catholic church believes the mass media needs a Catholic presence.

In another example in 1993 Pope John Paul II emphasised how new media — then videotapes and audiocassettes — could serve the "new evangelisation". And in 2002, he again implored Catholics to adopt the latest new media — the Internet — in "proclaiming the Gospel". Two years later MercatorNet was launched online, as were other similar sites.

And if there was any doubt as to what Catholic communications services were for, in October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a major address confirming that "the church exists to evangelise".

That's just a few of the many.

Media for the faithful

Back in Australia, B. A. Santamaria established the AD2000 journal in the late 1980s. It's an obviously Catholic publication published by the Thomas Moore Centre in Melbourne. A quality journal aimed squarely at and informative to Catholic adherents, it is of limited interest to the general public. What reaches the general public is mainstream media.

But "Houston, we have a problem"...

Mainstream media a "problem"

In a revealing narrative, loyal Catholic Professor Margaret Somerville, now at the (Catholic) University of Notre Dame Australia, laid out the critical importance of the media to the outcome of VAD law reform in her 2001 book Death Talk: The case against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (especially see Chapter 19).

In it, she highlights the Catholic communications problem (without mentioning Catholicism), railing against what she claimed even then was the mostly "small-l liberal" mainstream media as resistant to religious messages. She confirmed that religious media are much more accommodating of the "pro-life" world view.

She specifically noted the importance of "framing" the issues to "significantly influence political decisions", complaining that "anti-euthanasia arguments do not make dramatic and compelling television". She then went on to outline a collection of useful anti-VAD "frames", which were wholly consistent with the Vatican's position and language.

Indeed, you'd be forgiven for thinking Professor Somerville wrote the church's framings, because she's given pre-eminent billing over the Vatican itself in the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth's website for bioethics, the LJ Goody Bioethics Centre. Of further relevance is that the Catholic Archbishop of Perth is, along with the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, the ultimate authority controlling the University of Notre Dame Australia, where Somerville is a Professor.

(Incidentally, the website's home page "What's new" announcement is more than 5½ years out of date, which gives the impression that the Centre was a hasty, event-specific confection whose purpose has long since passed.)
 

ljgoodybioethics2020-09small.jpg Professor Margaret Somerville gets pre-eminent billing on Catholic bioethics, above the Vatican itself.

Don't mention the war religion

Amongst Professor Somerville's numerous writings slamming VAD, some stand out more than others. One that does is a 2008 editorial titled Death talk in a secular age, in which she vigorously encourages religious opponents to "formulate a moral argument against euthanasia without resorting to religion" [my emphasis]. And who published this editorial? Why, it was MercatorNet!

Did the Catholic church take note of Professor Somerville's strategy? As I've pointed out before, Mr Ben Smith, Director of the Life, Marriage and Family Office at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hobart, fails to mention who he really is in at least two purportedly "independent" groups fulminating against Tasmania's current VAD Bill. One of the groups he leads, Live & Die Well, encourages people to write objections to their parliamentarians, but expressly commands "DO NOT use religious arguments."

Professor Somerville was also a keynote speaker at a 2008 conference of media professionals in Toronto, in which she advised journalists and editors how to "frame" the debate against VAD. But these were not just any journalists and editors at large. They were Catholic journalists and editors: members of the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada, whom she schooled alongside a number of Catholic church officials. The conference's title? "Proclaim it from the rooftops!"

Catholic Professor Margaret Somerville has been central to the Catholic church's hostile "framing" of VAD, and helping media specialists spread that framing through the media.

More religious frustrations

Over the years Professor Somerville continued to build upon the theme, including in her 2015 book, Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about values in the culture wars. She escalated her criticism of the "intense tolerance" of "the now ubiquitous moral relativism" as an illustration of how VAD law reform demonstrates what happens "if we take a purely secular approach not balanced by religious views."

A curated garden

You will have noticed by now significant common threads in favour of Catholic "truth"; against "relativism"; calls to evangelise using the media; calls to avoid and actual avoidance of religion in argumentation; avoidance of revealing religious connections in by-lines; and a united portfolio of Church-friendly framings of VAD by a busy theatre of players.

Given the church's perceptions of a hostile mainstream media, is it any wonder that some devout Catholic contributors, and deeply Catholic media outlets, hide their religious petticoats and zucchetti while publishing grave misinformation in the curry of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) against VAD?

This isn't a random jungle.

No, it's a curated garden, tended to by what we might call the 'Catholic communicators guild'.

Failure to mention deep Catholic roots behind purported "secular" attacks on VAD law reform is a strategy of the 'Catholic communicators guild'.

Conclusion

In this review, I've revealed only some of the deep Catholic connections that resulted in a shocking appropriation of the death of an elderly woman with cancer, using misinformation and framing wholly consistent with the Catholic church's evangelisation, but withholding key information about those deep religious underpinnings.

It's clear the Catholic church understands that its religious arguments are unpersuasive to the wider community. It's also important that the public and legislators understand how religious forces attempt to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt about VAD law reform by giving the appearance of secular neutrality to its messages.

Mrs Dugdale’s gran deserved better than to be appropriated for the aggrandisement of an agenda that is clearly at odds with her own beliefs and values… and the values of the overwhelming majority of Australians.

May she rest in peace.


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St Mary's Cathedral, Hobart, Tasmania

Hobart Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous makes a number of incorrect representations about voluntary assisted dying (VAD) in his recent Talking Points article (Hobart Mercury 23rd Aug). And, most of his own flock disagree with his opposed stance.

Let's take a look at the facts, and the Archbishop's 'alternatives'.

NOTE: While The Hobart Mercury published Archbishop Porteous' arguments, they declined to publish this rebuttal.

Key points

  1. Archbishop Porteous wrongly equates VAD with general suicide and insinuates they are lonely deaths when they aren't.
  2. He claims that palliative care can always help, when palliative care peak bodies clearly state that it can't.
  3. He insensitively co-opts Covid-19 victims and their families into his arguments, despite them having nothing to do with VAD.
  4. He doesn't represent his own flock: three quarters (74%) of Australian Catholics support VAD, including near half (48%) who strongly support VAD. A tiny 15% are opposed.
  5. In just twelve years (2007─19), the Australian Catholic church has lost a quarter (26%) of its flock. Of those remaining, an increasing proportion, now half (50%), never or almost never attend services.
  6. Diocese Director of Life, Marriage and Family, Mr Ben Smith, encourages Catholics to write to their politicians using the same talking points as Porteous, and with express instructions "DO NOT use religious arguments".

Assisted deaths completely different from general suicide

One particularly egregious aspect of Archbishop Porteous' rhetoric is the innuendo he employs to equate VAD with general suicide, including liberally sprinkling the word "suicide" through his narrative.

But there are profound differences between general suicide and VAD. Most Australians understand that, and research shows that most Australian doctors agree.

Assisted deaths are not lonely

The Archbishop, with astonishing misjudgement, also co-opts the Covid-19 deceased into his story arc: people whose funeral can't be attended by loved ones because of government-imposed lockdown. He obliquely infers that VAD users are or will be naturally unattended by loved ones — even without imposed lockdown.

He further slathers on observations about family reconciliations during the natural dying process, with the implicit meaning that's the only dying context in which families might reconcile.

His presumptions skirt extensive evidence that one of the most treasured factors amongst both VAD law users and their loved ones is the opportunity to express love and caring, and the ability to gather and say goodbye.

Further, multiple scholarly studies show that loved ones recover from bereavement after an assisted death at least as well as those bereaved from natural death, and in some cases, better.

Contrary to Archbishop Porteous' sinister insinuations, VAD deaths can prompt families to gather, express love, say goodbye, and grieve well.

Palliative care can't always help

Archbishop Porteous also argues that palliative care "is able to manage pain and suffering" such that nobody should experience a bad death. He ought to know better: more than half of all palliative care services in Australia are delivered via Catholic institutions.

Palliative Care Australia has clearly stated that "complete relief of all suffering is not always possible, even with optimal palliative care". Even Catholic Doctor's Association palliative care specialist Dr Odette Spruyt, a past President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine, has said "it is simplistic to argue that palliative care can remove all suffering at the end of life."

Both of Australia's peak palliative care bodies acknowledge that even the best care can't relieve all terrible suffering at the end of life.

Less treatment but more treatment

Then there's the incoherence of the Archbishop’s argument acknowledging that people want to avoid more medical intervention, while arguing at the same time that more medical intervention (palliative care) is always the only answer to end-of-life suffering.

What about the devout religious?

He adds an odour of hubris to this unctuous spread by noting with disapproval that "family members of those who have had difficult deaths" are the most vocal supporters of law reform. Indeed. These are real people with real experiences of when even the best palliative care can't help.

For balance, it's worth pointing out that numerous research studies show that it's the most religious who are the most vocal opponents of VAD law reform.

Numerous scholarly studies show that it's the most religious who are the most vocal opponents of VAD law reform.

But don't mention religion

It's curious then that the Archbishop — a senior cleric — invokes not a single religious statement or reference in his narrative. Perhaps he's coordinated well with his diocesan Director of Life, Marriage and Family Office, Mr Ben Smith, who advises in an anti-VAD letter-writing guide handed out at Tasmanian masses last week, "DO NOT use religious arguments".

Unsurpisingly, Mr Smith also recommends other language demonstrated in the Archbishop's opinion piece: imply that people will be vulnerable, say that palliative care is the answer, bring up the Covid-19 pandemic, and refer to assisted suicide rather than assisted dying.

Director of Hobart's Catholic Life, Marriage and Family Office, Mr Ben Smith, urges Catholics to write to their politicians to oppose VAD, but directing them “DO NOT use religious arguments”.

Far from representing the 'everyman'

Rather than use any religious references, Archbishop Porteous carefully crafts his grave implications in 'everyman' language as though the points he makes are naturally agreeable to everyone.

But he doesn't represent the great majority of Australians, four out of five (80%) of whom support VAD, according to the most recent (2019) impeccable national study from Australian National University.

Far from representing Australian Catholics

Nor does Archbishop Porteous represent the views of most Australian Catholics. The ANU study also found that three quarters (74%) of them support VAD, with only a tiny minority (15%) opposed. A staggering near-half (48%) of Australian Catholics now strongly support VAD, up from around a third (36%) just three years earlier in 2016.

Three quarters of Australian Catholics support VAD law reform, almost half of them strongly.

At the same time, the ANU study reveals that the Catholic Church represents fewer and fewer Australians. In just the twelve years between 2007 and 2019, the Catholic Church lost a quarter (26%) of its flock. Australians with no religion (41%) now outnumber Catholics by two to one (21%).

In addition, of the fewer still identifying as Catholic, there's been an increase of more than one in five — now comprising half (50%) — who never, or almost never, attend services.

It's worth emphasising that even amongst those who haven't abandoned the Catholic church altogether — the more entrenched — strong support for VAD law reform has soared.

The Australian Catholic church has lost a quarter of its flock in 12 years, and half of those remaining never or almost never attend services.

Not the best spokesperson

Amid shrinking flocks, withering attendance and a weighty jump in strong Catholic support for VAD, it's curious that the Archbishop continues to vocally push entrenched opposition. Perhaps Sydney's Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher was right when he said in 2011, "Bishops, for instance, are not always the best public spokespeople for the Church on such matters." Indeed.

As politicians are only too keenly aware, they're elected by the people, not appointed by religious officials.

Australians unambiguously show a determined and increasing appetite for lawful VAD. It would be a courageous politician indeed who resolved to trudge the road now so obviously on the wrong side of history.


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A recent article in The Guardian reports that most Queensland churchgoers support voluntary assisted dying (VAD), citing a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Clem Jones Trust.

In fact, attitudes in support of VAD have been strengthening across Australia for many years, and the last few are no exception. In this analysis I explain, using impeccable Australian Election Study (AES) data gathered by a specialist team at Australian National University.

Each federal election, the AES gathers extensive demographic and attitudinal data from a substantial sample of Australians. That means we have comparable snapshots from each election in recent times, including 2019, 2016, 2013, 2010 and 2007 (though attitudes toward VAD have been asked only since 2016).

First up, given the well-documented strong connection between higher religiosity and less favourable attitudes towards VAD, let’s take a quick look at Australia’s changing religious landscape.

Abandoning religion: from trickle to torrent

Since federation, periodic census data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) confirms a long-term decline in religious affiliation (Figure 1).

ABS Census data of religion since FederationFigure 1: Religious affiliation in Australia by census year (ABS data)
NOTE: Figures are nett of typically 10% non-response

Even this data generally overstates actual religious affiliation, compared with repeated good-quality polls. Census data has pegged religious affiliation typically 4-8% higher than do most polls.

That’s because until the most recent census (2016), collections had primarily or exclusively used a single, massive booklet for household completion. Mr Jones was unlikely to upset Mrs Jones by ticking the “No religion” box when he thinks she’s sure the family is Anglican, and she can see his answers. In contrast, relatives are not looking over the shoulder of an opinion poll respondent, which allows them to be more frank.

Additionally, a formal booklet is more likely to prompt respondents to answer in terms of historical household identity (a lagging indicator), while ad hoc surveys are more likely to prompt answers in terms of recent, pragmatic attitudes and practices (current indicator).

Abandoning religious identity

AES data clearly shows that for major denominations, Australians are leaving institutionalised religion in droves (Figure 2).

Religious affiliation by federal election yearFigure 2: Religious affiliation by federal election year (AES data)

Over just 12 years Catholic affiliation has dropped from 28% to 21% (a drop of 26% of its flock); Anglican from 21% to 15% (-29%); and Uniting/Methodist from 8% to 4% (-52%). In total, minor Christian denominations have remained around the same, while non-Christian denominations have experienced a small increase, mostly from immigration.

But by far the most dramatic change over the 12 years is that No Religion has soared from 26% to 41% of the population, an increase of 61%. The largest increase was between 2016 and 2019, most likely a result of Australians’ dismay at the 2017 reports of the royal commission into institutional responses to the sexual abuse of children. It found that most offenses occurred in religious institutions, more than half of them in the Catholic church alone.

Abandoning religious practice

Not only have Australians been abandoning religious identity, but for the most part increasingly abandoning religious practice (Figure 3).

Religious service attendance by denominationFigure 3: Almost never/never attend religious services (AES data)

At the same time as many Australians have abandoned religious identity, those still identifying with Catholic, Uniting, and non-Christians faiths are attending services less than before.

Overall, service attendance has remained about the same amongst minor Christian denominations, and there has been an increase amongst Anglicans (actually because far more Notionals — people who identify with a denomination but never attend religious services — have “left” the Anglican church).

Indeed, in 2019, fewer than half of Australians (47%) ever attend religious services, just a third (32%) attend more often than once in a blue moon, and a mere 16% are consistent attenders.

Clerics might still be talking, but fewer Australians than ever want to listen.

Abandonment to continue

Australians will continue to abandon religion given that most younger Australians reject religion at the same time that older, more religious Australians pass away (Figure 4).

Religion by age cohort 2019 (AES data)Figure 4: Religion by age cohort 2019 (AES data)

This picture is even more dire for clerics than it was just three years earlier in 2016 (Figure 5).

Religion by age cohort 2016 (AES data)Figure 5: Religion by age cohort 2016 (AES data)

Over the next 25 years the Catholic church and minor Christian denominations will struggle, while the Anglican and Uniting churches will almost cease to exist if current trends continue.

An integrated measure of religion

For further analysis, we’ll use the Australian Religious Identity 6-Factor (ARI6) model. It segments on the combined basis of religious attitudes and behaviour across a spectrum from Rejecters to Devouts.

Unsurprisingly over the past decade, Devouts have remained firmly entrenched in their faith (Figure 6), while there has been a small downward trend amongst Regulars.

ARI6 by year (AES data)Figure 6: Australian Religious Identity 6-Factor (ARI6) by year (AES data)

Most of the abandonment of religion in recent years has been amongst Occasionals, those who identify with a religious denomination but rarely attend services. This begs the question as to whether clerics were right to assume that they spoke for many in their flocks in the first place.

Attitudes toward VAD — Overall

Between 2016 and 2019 there was a small but statistically non-significant increase in total support for VAD, while there was no change in total opposition (Figure 7).

Australian adult VAD attitudes by yearFigure 7: Australian adult attitudes toward VAD by year (AES data)

What is readily apparent, though, is a substantial increase in the number of Australians strongly in support of VAD (from 43% to 53%), while total opposition has remained tiny at fewer than one in ten Australians (9%).

Attitudes toward VAD — Religious affiliation

Amongst Australians who still count themselves as religiously affiliated in 2019, a majority of all religions except minor Christian denominations clearly favour VAD (Figure 8), including three quarters (74%) of Catholics, four in five Anglicans (78%) and Uniting/Methodists (81%), and almost all non-Christian religious (96%) and non-religious (92%).

Even amongst the minor Christian denominations with nearly half (49%) in support, just one in five (20%) were opposed to VAD, the rest being neutral.

VAD attitudes by religion 2019Figure 8: Attitudes toward VAD by religious affiliation 2019 (AES data)

Strong support amongst Catholics increased massively from 36% in 2016 to 48% (close to half in strong support) in 2019, highlighting the irony of Catholic clergy continuing to actively oppose VAD law reform.

Given the tiny minorities opposed across the religious spectrum, those clerics who continue to vocally oppose the legalisation of VAD — including some employing serious misinformation — in no way are speaking for the majority of their flocks.

Attitudes toward VAD — Religiosity

Unsurprisingly, given the vast body of existing scholarly research evidence, opposition to VAD is largely religious (Figure 9).

VAD attitudes by ARI6, 2019Figure 9: Attitudes toward VAD by ARI6 2019 (AES data)

Nearly half of all opposition to VAD (44%) is of Devouts, with an additional quarter (26%) amongst Regulars and Occasionals, and a smaller proportion (17%) from Notionals.

Tellingly, even amongst the most religious, opposition to VAD has dropped significantly in just three years since 2016 (Figure 10). Opposition to VAD amongst Devouts dropped from nearly half (46%) to just over a third (35%), and amongst Regulars from 25% to just 15%.

VAD attitudes by ARI6, 2016Figure 10: Attitudes toward VAD by ARI6 2016 (AES data)

For 2019, proportions of the most opposed religious segment, Devouts, are almost evenly split amongst supporters, neutrals and opposers.

Amongst the next most religious, Regulars, supporters outnumber opponents by three to one, and in all the other segments supporters outnumber opponents by more than ten to one.

The evidence is clear: even amongst the most religious Australians, opposition to VAD is melting away.

The lowdown for politicians

What does this mean for legislators, who the community is asking to legalise VAD with responsible safeguards? Figure 11 shows VAD attitudes of Australians by the political party they identify with.

VAD attitudes by political party identity 2019Figure 11: Attitudes toward VAD by political party identity 2019 (AES data)

It’s obvious why VAD Bills have been sponsored by Greens members and/or facilitated by Labor governments.

In contrast, Australian Coalition parliamentary parties (with notable exceptions of a handful of Coalition members) have steadfastly obstructed consideration and passage of VAD Bills. This is not because the party machinery is representing the broader Coalition voter, whose overall support stands at 74% versus a tiny 13% opposed. Rather, it’s because of the (widely reported) takeover of the party machinery by the religious right.

The natural home of VAD opponents is minor right parties, comprising overall a slight majority (53%) opposed to VAD. [Addendum: those identifying with minor right parties comprise just 3.1% of the adult Australian population.]

Given that minor right party voters are most likely to give their major party preference flow to the Coalition, the real concern for Coalition election strategists is to minimise first preferences going to a minor right party in the one or two electorates (if any) in which such a minor party win might even be on the cards.

The lowdown for election candidates

It’s been a firm belief among the political class for a long time that candidates openly supporting VAD would be punished at the polls on election day, with little to no downside for candidates opposed to VAD. That, however, is fake news.

A 2012 Newspoll survey asked voters if, all other things being equal, they would change their vote if their otherwise preferred election candidate’s stance was the opposite of their own (support vs opposition). (Full disclosure: as CEO of YourLastRight.com I commissioned the survey.)

VAD-supporting voters stated they would punish their preferred candidate (opposing VAD) at three times the net rate that VAD-opposing voters would punish a supporting candidate. I’ve subsequently published various other observations that are consistent with this finding.

Now that strong support for VAD amongst the Australian public is significantly higher than it was in 2016 (let alone 2012), it would be foolhardy for any supportive politician to hide their light under a bushel, or for an opposed candidate to effectively thumb their nose at the majority of voters.

I’m reminded of a favourite remark of Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorn) in the 1980s British political comedy series Yes Minister, who would gently point out his Minister’s policy folly (Jim Hacker played by Paul Eddington) with the light remark, “that would be very courageous, Minister!”

It’s now a very courageous candidate indeed who believes their personal opposition to VAD ought to trump the support of the vast majority of their constituency. And, given the ongoing abandonment of religion in Australia, such candidates will soon find themselves on the wrong side of history.

The lowdown for campaigners and voters

Given that most Australians — increasingly including the religious — are in favour of responsible VAD law reform, and with a growing proportion strongly in support, it’s more important than ever to determine election candidates’ real attitudes toward VAD.

Some candidates provide prompt and candid responses to help voters decide. But many candidates obfuscate, either failing to respond at all or responding with non-answers such as they haven’t seen specific legislation yet so cannot answer, or cynically stating only the obvious such as “opinions vary” and it can be “an emotive issue”.

The key action with obfuscators is to get a real answer to the question “could there be any version of a VAD Bill that could enjoy your support?” And assume those who still obfuscate would have said “no”, had they been candid.


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Branka van der Linden on the "HOPE" website.

HOPE’s Director, Branka van der Linden, is at it again, foisting more misleading information about voluntary assisted dying (VAD) on unwilling members of Parliament. I expose the rot and provide some background on Mrs van der Linden.

Van der Linden’s latest email to all WA MPs states:

Subject: WA Report relies on troubling Belgian study

 
[MP Salutation] --

Did you know that a study showing that one person in Belgium is euthanised every three days without their explicit consent also found that:

  • in more than 77 per cent of cases, the decision was not discussed with the patient;
  • in more than half of cases, the patient had never expressed a desire for their life to be ended; and
  • in more than half of the cases, the reason given was because killing the patient was the wish of the family?

 
Did you know that the WA majority report cited this study as evidence of assisted suicide and euthanasia reducing the incidence of unlawful activity?

Warm regards,

Branka van der Linden
Director, HOPE

 
Van der Linden’s method is to create an impression of calumny against VAD law reform. She uses a nice PR formula of three bullet points per communication. With repetition. It’s a method I expressly warned the WA Parliament to watch out for in my submission to its inquiry. The growing list of emails is now starting to look like ‘harassment’.

So let’s look at van der Linden’s claims — again. She’s talking about non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) — again.

In her email to MPs, she complains that the WA majority report on end-of-life choices cited the study as evidence of the NVE rate reducing when VAD is legalised.

Well, the WA majority report formed that correct conclusion because that’s precisely what the cited study reported: drops in the NVE rates in both the Netherlands and Belgium after their euthanasia Acts came into effect in 2002.

While concerns ought to be expressed about the deliberate hastening of death without an explicit request from the patient with a view to improving knowledge and practices, it’s not caused by VAD laws as van der Linden desperately tries to imply.

Here are highly relevant things the cited study’s authors had to say, but van der Linden astonishingly ignores:

“The use of life-ending drugs without explicit patient request are not confined to countries where physician-assisted death is legal.”; and

“[NVE’s] occurrence has not risen since the legalisation of euthanasia in Belgium. On the contrary, the rate dropped from 3.2% in 1998 to 1.8% in 2007. In the Netherlands, the rate dropped slightly after legalization, from 0.7% to 0.4%” [The Belgian rate was 1.7% in a more recent replication of the research.]; and

The NVE cases found in the study “in reality resembles more intensified pain alleviation with a ‘double effect’, and death in many cases was not hastened.”

But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Van der Linden’s recent emails about VAD to MPs reveal astonishing ignorance and a willingness to overlook critical evidence contrary to her position, contained in the very source she cites.

The superficiality of her cherry-picking is kind of embarrassing: she holds an arts/law degree from Australian National University, so you’d expect more intelligent engagement.

It begs the question: who is Branka van der Linden? The “HOPE” website reveals little if anything.
 

Who is Branka van der Linden?

Branka Van der Linden is the current Director of anti-VAD website “HOPE (Preventing euthanasia and assisted suicide)”. HOPE is an initiative of the Australian Family Association, a Catholic lobby group established by Australia’s most famous lay Catholic, B. A. Santamaria.

HOPE’s founding Director and van der Linden’s predecessor, was Mr Paul Russell, the former Senior Officer for Family and Life at the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

It turns out that Branka van der Linden (née Seselja) is a sister of Catholic ACT Senator Zed Seselja who voted against David Leyonhjelm's recent Restoring Territory Rights (to legislate on VAD) Bill. But there’s more. Far more.

Branka, who attended Catholic St Clair’s College primary school and Padua Catholic High School, both in the ACT, is a “senior lawyer” at the Truth Justice and Healing Council, which provides services to the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference and Catholic Religious Australia in relation to the Catholic Church’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

She’s advisory legal counsel for the lay Catholic St Vincent de Paul Society Canberra/Goulburn Territory Council. (And good on her for supporting this philanthropic work.)

She and her husband Shawn represent (or at least represented) the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, and were representatives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra & Goulburn on the National Family Pilgrimage to the (Catholic) World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015.

Husband Shawn has been described by the church as a “loyal Catholic servant” for nine years of service as the director of CatholicLIFE at the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn.

And as if this weren’t clear enough, a sample of Branka’s Facebook Likes is equally informative:

A sample of Branka van der Linden’s Facebook Likes

  • Archbishop Anthony Fisher (Catholic)
  • Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila (Catholic)
  • Archbishop Mark Coleridge (Catholic)
  • Bishop Robert Barron (Catholic)
  • Marist College Canberra Faith Formation (Catholic)
  • St Thomas the Apostle Kambah (Catholic)
  • Campion College (Catholic)
  • Teaching Catholic Kids
  • Ascension (Catholic Church)
  • CathFamily
  • St Therese of Lixieux (Catholic)
  • Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia in Australia (Catholic)
  • Fusion Youth Group (Catholic)
  • St Clare’s College (Catholic)
  • Marist Canberra Football Club (Catholic)
  • Light To The Nations (Catholic)
  • Catholic Voices USA
  • Centre for Faith Enrichment (Catholic)
  • World Meeting of Families 2015 (Catholic)
  • Quidenham Carmelite Monastery (Catholic)
  • Denver Catholic
  • Catholic Mission – Canberra & Goulburn
  • XT3 (Catholic youth association)
  • Missionaries of God’s Love Darwin (Catholic)
  • Marist College Canberra (Catholic)
  • Life, Marriage & Family Office (Catholic)
  • Infant Jesus Parish, Morley (Catholic)
  • MGL Priests and Brothers (Catholic)
  • Catholic Mission – Sydney, Broken Bay, Parramatta
  • Youth Mission Team Australia (Catholic)
  • Summer School of Evangelisation – Bathurst (Catholic)
  • Missionaries of God’s Live Sisters (Catholic)
  • Sisterhood National Catholic Women’s Movement
  • My Family My Faith (Catholic)
  • Catholic Talk
  • The Catholic Weekly
  • The Catholic Leader
  • Mercatornet (Catholic blog site)
  • BioEdge (Catholic blog site)

It’s clear that Branka van der Linden, like her predecessor Paul Russell, is very deeply invested in Catholic tradition. I will be the first to say I firmly believe that is entirely her right.

Yet how curious it is that while repeatedly advancing (secular) misinformation about VAD, Branka van der Linden doesn’t mention her profound religious convictions. It's surprisingly similar to the approach evidenced by Catholic Professor of Ethics, Margaret Somerville; and Catholic (then) Victorian MP Daniel Mulino; and Catholic Editor of The Australian, Paul Kelly (who warmly quotes Mulino); and Catholic director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Alex Schadenberg...

You get the idea: perhaps there's a pattern?

One possible source of pattern

What was it that the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said at the 2011 Catholic Bioethics Conference in relation to opposing the legalisation of VAD?

"The most effective messengers may also vary: bishops, for instance, are not always the best public spokespeople for the Church on such matters."; and

"...the man or woman in the street ... may well be open to persuasion that permissive laws and practices cannot be effectively narrowed to such circumstances"; and

"We need to research and propose new messages also and carefully consider who should deliver them, where and how."

Nowhere in his address does Fisher propose actually testing whether his calamitous assumptions about VAD are true.

Gosh, another coincidence.

Epilogue

I want to be absolutely clear that I am not using a person’s religious conviction as a reason to dismiss their ideas. That’s called an ad hominem attack: an attack against the person rather than the substance of the argument (even assuming it has any substance to assess).

What I have done here and elsewhere, and I will continue to do, is to expose arguments that are false, misleading, illogical or otherwise unmeritorious on the basis of empirical evidence and reasoning.

It just turns out that organised misinformation against VAD law reform comes from deeply religious circles, and those religious circles often avoid mentioning their religiosity while spreading such nonsense under a ‘veneer of secularism’.

It’s in the public’s interest to understand where most organised misinformation against VAD comes from.


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Plenty of misinformation will be advanced to oppose Senator David Leyonhjelm's Restoring Territory Rights Bill.

In 1996 the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI) came into effect. Just four people had used the Act when seven months later an Act of the Federal Parliament extinguished the NT law, by cancelling the Territories’ authority to enact it.

This week, the Senate [federal parliament] debates the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill, sponsored by libertarian Senator David Leyonhjelm. If the Bill passes both houses, the Territories will again have the authority to legislate the matter of assisted dying.

Opponents of lawful assisted dying have been sharpening their knives to ensure that Senator Leyonhjelm’s Bill fails and that Territorians remain second-class citizens. In this post I expose one of the desperate and disgraceful pieces of misinformation opponents use to try and curry fear about law reform.

Opponent signals

There are signals from many quarters that assisted dying opponents are dragging out the tired old argument that indigenous Australians are too fearful of assisted dying to allow reinstatement of the Territories’ legislative authority.

The signals are clear, though so far mostly behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they predict a full onslaught of invalid “fear” claims in the parliamentary debate this week.

Populist beginning of the misinformation

Since the NT ROTI Act there have been ongoing claims that indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Australians are wholly and deeply fearful of assisted dying law. A chief flag-waver of this proposition is Jesuit Priest Father Frank Brennan. He’s not only argued this line repeatedly in public, but promoted it to at least one parliamentary inquiry.

Fr Brennan likes to frame this argument to suggest that it’s uniquely substantive and persuasive, while other highly relevant information is merely “suggestion”.

“There was a suggestion these fears were whipped up by the churches and other conservative groups.” — Fr Brank Brennan

The “indigenous fears” opinion has been widely disseminated by other Catholics, including now-disgraced Fr John Fleming in a paper on behalf of the Catholic Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, and by Mr Paul Russell, Director of “HOPE”, a ginger group established by the Catholic Australian Family Association.

Classic cherry-picking

I’ve called out Mr Russell and others before for cherry-picking information to suit their arguments. And here we are again. In this blog, Mr Russell correctly reports that indigenous NT parliamentarian Mr Wes Lanhupuy voted in favour of the ROTI Act, but dismisses his vote as the result of “pressure”.

What Mr Russell disgracefully omits from his plug is that Mr Lanhupuy was directly involved in the consultation of indigenous communities, and said this in his parliamentary speech:

“The church has been a major voice. … I heard in the community that some of the churches were telling people that they should not support the bill basically because of their religious beliefs. No information whatsoever was given as a reason for that. No information was given whereby people could determine their own beliefs. That was disappointing.” — NT indigenous parliamentarian Mr Wes Lanhupuy (Hansard)

Disgraceful religious prejudice

But there’s more. At the time the federal parliament was debating its Bill to overturn the ROTI Act in 1997, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee conducted a formal investigation and published a Senate report, Consideration of legislation referred to the Committee: Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996. Its 204 pages make interesting reading.

For example, Mr Creed Lovegrove, a former senior Northern Territory public servant leading the Native Affairs Office, reported to the Senate Committee:

“I express my concern, not at the right of certain ideologists to have their say, but at the misrepresentations some were making to people over whom they have an emotional hold. Where this group happens to be Aboriginal, I believe some of the frightening lies they were told about the subject were a psychological and emotional exploitation of them, as blatant as any that has ever occurred in the Territory.” — p 44

…and reported to him by a group of senior and influential Aboriginals:

“They reckon the government is going to round up all the real sick people and those with V.D. and things like that and finish them off.” — p 45

…and on page 44 of the report, the Northern Territory government noted that at least one Aboriginal community wanted to hear the full story about euthanasia, not just the Church story.

Fake news — avoiding healthcare

There were also widespread claims that indigenous Northern Territorians were avoiding presenting to medical centres for healthcare for fear of being euthanased. However, the Senate report noted (p 52) that the claim was controversial, and that the Northern Territory government had provided statistics to show no significant decrease in presentations for treatment.

In a classic opponent manoeuvre when the data yet again didn’t fit the story, it was then claimed (p 52) that future data could show a decrease in presentations.

Morally bankrupt argument

But that’s a morally bankrupt argument. You don’t deny Jack the right to drive a car because Jill has an ill-informed phobia that Jack’s right is likely to contribute to her own death. Rather, the ethical approach is to provide Jack with his right and to provide Jill with education.

And that’s precisely what the NT government did. In today’s money, it stumped up $500k for education programs, and those programs were beginning to take effect. In testimony to the Committee, Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra (opposed to the legislation) conceded that the education efforts had been somewhat effective in overcoming fears about the ROTI Act (p 52).

Ironic reverse discrimination

Perhaps one of the most ironic aspects of church-led fear of the ROTI Act was the Act’s “reverse discrimination” itself. The Act required, if the doctor and patient did not share the same first language, that a qualified and authorised translator be engaged before the patient might qualify for an assisted death.

Given the rarity of qualified and authorised translators, especially in remote communities, indigenous Northern Territorians would have had significantly less access to use the law than their white, city-based fellow citizens.

Putting it into perspective

Setting aside the dreadfully misinformed fear of assisted dying law and its stoking by churches, the question arises as to the prevalence of indigenous residents in the Territories: both Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. I’ve retrieved Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the 2016 census to answer that question (Figure 1).

 

indigenousterritorians.gifFigure 1: Australian Territory indigenous populations
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016 census

Indigenous peoples represent a quarter of the population in the NT (25.5%), and a tiny minority (1.6%) in the ACT. Across the two Territories, that’s 10.3% of the population. Even if all the indigenous citizens opposed assisted dying law reform (which is clearly not the case), their impact on overall attitude would be minor.

By way of comparison, most national polls find around 12% of Australians opposed to assisted dying law reform. And, as I’ve factually demonstrated, almost all of that is faith-based. Such ‘fears’ are not a valid reason to prohibit others from pursuing a choice they deeply feel is moral and justified.

Playing the race card

Indeed, if opponents were intent on justifying the denial of a parliament to legislate for assisted dying on the basis of supposed indigenous attitude — playing the race card — then they must also by corollary campaign for the denial of State parliaments to legislate. That's because there are nearly four times as many indigenous Australians in NSW (216,170) and three times as many in Queensland (186,483) as there are in the Northern Territory (58,246) [2016 census data].

To argue one and not the other is to flip-flop.

Contact your Senators now

Church-whipped fear about assisted dying law amongst indigenous Australians is appalling and to be condemned, as is spreading false claims about a supposed reduction in presentations for medical care.

Senators will be inundated with false claims as they contemplate the Leyonhjelm Bill — including that indigenous Territorians are terrified of assisted dying law. (Lyeonhjelm’s Bill doesn’t legalise assisted dying: it only restores Territory parliament rights to consider the reform.)

It’s critical that Senators also hear from supporters of Territory rights — that Territorians not be treated as second-class citizens compared to State-based citizens.

To that end YOU can do something right now! Use the Go Gentle Australia submission page to send a message of support to your State or Territory Senators now. Go Gentle make it so easy, by showing you who your Senators are by merely entering your address.

Don’t delay! Here’s the link again.

 

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Disclaimer: I do not claim, suggest, imply or impute that any individuals named in this article were personally or individually responsible for, or were involved in, any misinformation being provided to indigenous Australians about assisted dying law.


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A DyingForChoice.com editorial appears in the Jan/Feb 2018 edition of LivingNow

A DyingForChoice.com editorial in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of lifestyle magazine, LivingNow, explains why assisted dying law reform in Australia has taken so long, and why it will accelerate from here.

Download the editorial (PDF 3.5Mb)

Visit LivingNow


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SBS reports the commencement of the inquiry into religious freedom

In the context of religious institutions seeking to ban doctors and patients from engaging in the lawful conduct of assisted dying, and in regard to similar discrimination regarding marriage equality, I've made a submission to Philip Ruddock's "Relgious Freedom" inquiry, in which I call on the Panel to attend properly to robust ethical process, through ten specific recommendations.

Download the submission PDF.

Conclusions of the submission

The Panel’s Terms of Reference and its conduct published to date indicate that this inquiry’s procedural base and process are far too narrow. A Parliamentary Committee inquiry followed by a public vote on religious freedoms would be the appropriate manner for the Federal Government to demonstrate consistency of equity in its deliberations on important social policy. Failure to do so would only confirm Government bias.

The Panel’s moves to publish submissions is to be commended, and all institutional and most personal submissions should be published. However, the Panel’s approach to entertaining and encouraging private appearances without recording or transcript is to be condemned as a serious transgression of proper and transparent public consultation. Failure to publish appearance transcripts would amplify perceptions of Government and Panel bias.

The Government’s Terms of Reference additionally convey implicit bias by requesting the Panel consider whether “freedom of religion” is “adequate”, overlooking the real and present condition of its excessiveness in some contexts. Repeated forms of bias will undermine public confidence in the Panel’s consultation, its report, and the Government.

The Panel must also expressly and carefully define “freedom of religion” given the lack of clarity from the Government, especially noting that the Terms of Reference include by explicit deduction the equal right to freedom from religion.

If the Panel recommends in favour of any special legal exemptions in regard to “freedom of religion”, it obliged to publish express, coherent and reasoned principles for (a) allowing exceptions for some religious beliefs but not others, and (b) allowing exceptions for beliefs held in ‘good conscience’ by the religious, but not the non-religious. To retain credibility, the Panel must refrain from arbitrary arguments such as axiomatic and normative claims.

The Panel must also expressly recognise that religious conscience is not a special class or standard of conscience and that arguing for protection of religious but not non-religious conscience is an unjustifiable form of special pleading. Multiple sources of evidence show that the religious are, on average, no more (and sometimes less) moral, and rather less rational, than the non-religious.

Additionally, the Panel must recommend the abolition of the legal recognition of ‘institutional conscience’, a fabricated pseudo-conscience that allows remote persons (such as a religious head office) with no direct and proper right to insert itself into local, private relationships (such as the therapeutic relationship between a doctor and her patient), to dictate prejudices and discrimination, and to arbitrarily deny citizens access to lawful conduct or opportunities in which they wish to participate. A reasonable exception to this is to allow exemptions only within religious facilities whose only purpose is worship — expressly excluding those that deliver non-religious services (such as health care, education or emergency housing) to the general public, or which derive any income from the public purse.

I commend these ethical procedural considerations to the Panel and the Government.

Recommendations of the submission

  1. That the Panel recommend a further and more detailed inquiry be conducted by a relevant Parliamentary Committee.
  2. That the Panel recommend an equitable voter poll, similar to the one for Marriage Equality, be conducted so that Australians may voice their views directly on any proposed changes to religious freedoms.
  1. That the Panel publish all institutional written submissions, and all private submissions except those that may give rise to risk of legal prosecution of their authors.
  2. That the Panel record and publish transcripts of all witness appearances.
  1. That the Panel expressly resolves that its Terms of Reference include amongst ‘human rights’ the right to freedom from religion, not merely of religion.
  2. That the Panel expressly consider and report on specific situations where lawful rights to religious freedom may currently be excessive and to recommend any necessary changes to legislation to address the imbalance.
  1. That the Panel defines precisely, in respect of this inquiry, what “freedom of religion” is, and, in light of “other human rights” that the definition includes by equity “freedom from religion.”
  1. That the Panel, if it supports any lawful exemptions from the general applicability of laws on the basis of religion, establishes and articulates coherent, robust and defensible principles for such exemptions, and not rely merely on axiomatic or currently normative religious claims about some beliefs but not others.
  1. That the Panel expressly acknowledge that religious conscience is not a special class or standard of conscience.
  2. That the Panel specifically reject the fabricated notion of ‘institutional conscience’ and deny special exemptions from general laws based on it, except potentially in the specific context of worship-only religious practice, that is, where general services (such as civil marriages, health care or education) are not being provided to the public nor financed in any part by public funds.

 

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