Rhetoric: The 'vulnerable'

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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Mrs Madeleine Dugdale's article has been withdrawn from MercatorNet without explanation.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And this is Mrs Dougdale's "about" page after the article was withdrawn.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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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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'HOPE' is pedalling assisted dying misinformation to politicians again.

The Catholic-backed anti-assisted-dying ginger group, HOPE, was represented for years by Paul Russell. He's retired and Branka van der Linden is now at the helm. But its penchant for pedaling egregious misinformation hasn't changed. Van der Linden recently sent an email to all WA members of parliament, containing three points.

Van der Linden's email reads:

 

Dear [MP salutation],

Did you know that the WA majority report that recommended assisted suicide for WA either dismissed or failed to report on the following statistics?

  • In the Netherlands in 2015, 431 people were euthanised without their explicit consent.
  • In Belgium, 8 per cent of all deaths were without explicit consent from the patient.
  • In Oregon in 2017, the ingestion status of 44 (out of 218) patients was ‘unknown’, making it impossible to ascertain if these 44 patients ended their lives voluntarily and without coercion.

Yours faithfully,

Branka van der Linden

Director, HOPE

 

The trouble is, all three claims by van der Linden are either directly false or egregiously misleading. Here are the actual facts:

FACT: Peer-reviewed scientific research shows that the non-voluntary euthanasia rate of both the Netherlands and Belgium has dropped significantly since their assisted dying Acts came into effect in 2002, consistent with more careful end-of-life decision making across the board.

Fiction 1: van der Linden improperly cherry-picked a single year’s statistic for each country (and, incoherently, a raw count for one but a percentage for the other), implying that lawful voluntary euthanasia increases non-voluntary euthanasia, when the opposite is true.

Fiction 2: van der Linden claimed Belgium’s non-voluntary euthanasia rate is 8%. It has never been anywhere near that figure: the most recent figure is 1.7% and it was 3.2% before Belgium’s euthanasia law.

FACT: Oregon’s health department actively matches death certificates with prescriptions issued for assisted dying. At any time some prescriptions have not been taken and the person may still be alive, and for the deceased, death certificates are still being processed. This naturally means that some prescription/death statuses will temporarily be ‘unknown’ to authorities, even though they will be later determined.

Fiction 3: van der Linden comically implies that this proper process is sinister.

It's curious how 'HOPE' likes to repeatedly demonstrate how HOPElessly uninformed it is about the actual facts and that its methods include cherry-picking data which it thinks supports its anti-assisted dying case, but which don't.

Western Australians deserve better than HOPE's silly propaganda campaign.


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The latest religious right 'think tank' lobby group, the Institute for Civil Society.

I challenge the latest religious right commentators opposing Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill to skip the flip-flopping and engage constructively.

They’re at it again. This time it’s the religious right’s latest ‘think tank’ front group, the impressively-named Institute for Civil Society. Sounds grand, doesn’t it?

But if you look into their lot in life, it’s to protect ‘religious freedoms.’ By that, they mean the right to lawfully discriminate against others of whom they disapprove, while at the same time arguing that they not be discriminated against.

Mark Sneddon and Sharon Rodrick of the ‘Institute’ published an opinion piece in Fairfax Media today.

In it, they slam the Victorian Government’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, which was introduced into the Parliament recently.

They criticize the Bill for inadequate safeguards. (There are no fewer than 68 of them.)

The logical fallacy

They level several criticisms at the Bill to say it's not 'safe'. But they could have advanced any criticism of the Bill to claim, as they do, that “the vulnerable will be at risk” — a logical fallacy as I’ve pointed out before. The "vulnerable will be at risk", by circular definition, if the Bill is printed in black ink (as it is) instead of purple, but they didn't complain about the colour of the ink.

The flip-flop

The point is, they flip-flop because they’re remarkably inconsistent in their position. At the same time as pointing out supposed flaws in the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, demanding a much higher standard of proof about a number of things, they completely fail in their opinion piece to even mention — let alone demand the same level of safeguards for — an already-legal and equivalent hypothetical risk for the “vulnerable.”

Equivalent hypothetical risk in operation for nearly 30 years

In Victoria, patients have an inalienable right to refuse any and all medical treatment. No reason need be given, even if the treatment is life-saving. The Medical Treatment Act 1998, currently in force, has several safeguards to protect against coercion or undue influence. In Section 5(1), one doctor and “another person” (who can be anybody) must be satisfied that:

  • “the patient has clearly expressed or indicated a decision”; and
  • “the patient’s decision is made voluntarily and without inducement or compulsion”; and
  • “the patient has been informed” about their condition and “has appeared to understand that information”; and
  • “the patient is of sound mind and has attained the age of 18 years.”
     

They’re all the legislated safeguards for the refusal of life-saving medical treatment.

And how many cases of undue influence have been prosecuted in Victoria over the nearly 30 years the Medical Treatment Act 1998 has been in effect? Precisely none. Not one.

So much for Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick’s avaricious relatives lurking at every bedside.

A new, equivalent hypothetical risk

The Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act 2016, which will come into force in March next year and which extinguishes the Medical Treatment Act 1998 at that time, also contains several similar safeguards for the refusal of life-saving medical treatment.

In witnessing an Advance Care Directive (Section 17), the two signatories, only one of whom must be a medical doctor, must certify that:

  • the person “appeared to have decision-making capacity” in relation to the documented decisions; and
  • the person “appeared to understand the nature and effect of each statement”; and
  • “the person appeared to freely and voluntarily sign the document”; and
  • “the person signed the document in the presence of the two witnesses”; and
  • “the witness is not an appointed medical treatment decision maker for the person.”*
     

In Section 52 of the Act, a health practitioner is forbidden to administer medical treatment if they are aware the patient has refused it, however (lawfully) refused.

This Act was passed in the term of the current Parliament: that is, by the same State MPs who are now considering the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

There was no great fracas over the sensible safeguards spelled out in the new Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act. There was no onslaught of “crisis!” op-ed screeds published in newspapers. There were no countless hours of talking heads tut-tutting and painting doomsday scenarios.

It was passed by the Parliament and accepted by the people as striking the right balance.

No safeguards at all in many cases

And that’s it: the sum-total of safeguards to refuse life-saving medical treatment in Victoria. However, if the patient refuses medical treatment verbally, there are no mandated safeguards at all in either old or new Act, because the statutory safeguards apply only to refusal given in writing.

Yet despite all this, Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick rail against safeguards against coercion and elder abuse only in regard to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, in which the safeguards are of a significantly higher calibre, with, for example, mandatory multiple doctor opinions, documentation trail, multiple requests, no go-ahead until approval by an external authority, notifications of numerous kinds, oversight by a specially-established panel, and so on.

It’s obvious what a flip-flop Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick’s demands are in respect of decisions that will foreseably result in death.

Another embarrassing flip-flop

Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick particularly also complain at length at the supposedly ‘lax’ definition of decision-making capacity in the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

That’s a major and embarrassing flip-flop. Here’s why.

The section of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill that stipulates those requirements (Section 4) is the same section number 4 that governs the right to refuse of life-saving medical treatment in the Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act 2016. Only a few words have been changed to alter the context from refusal of treatment to consideration of assisted dying. Otherwise, the Sections are identical.

Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick don't point this out in their opinion piece. Indeed, I was unable to find online any evidence that they had published any complaint about the provisions when the Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act was in debate, nor since. If they have, I’d be happy for them to point it out.

Is it all a strategic ruse, anyhow?

It’s pertinent to ask if the objections are a ruse anyhow, because, as Andrew Denton has rightly pointed out, a key opponent strategy is not to give an outright “no” to assisted dying Bills, but to say only “not this Bill” and create an atmosphere of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) so that it is defeated.

A typical ruse example

By way of example, I’ve published an account of how Victorian MP Daniel Mulino published outrageous misinformation about assisted dying. As a result, we had an extended conversation, during which he acknowledged that he had indeed published misinformation. At the end of the conversation I asked if he could support the Government’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill. (He’s a member of said Government.)

No, it’s too liberal, he said, pointing to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, now in force for nearly 20 years, as a more conservative approach. So I asked him if he would support a Bill like Oregon’s.

No, he said, there were still concerns about it.

By now you’ve spotted the merely incremental withdrawal of supposed possible support. So I asked him outright if there was any form of assisted dying Bill he could support.

The relevant word within a long discourse: No.

And there’s the answer that belies the political strategy. It doesn’t matter one whit what provisions are included in an assisted dying Bill, just criticize a bunch of provisions and create FUD to defeat it.

 

A direct challenge to Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick

If “doubters of this Bill” are genuine about permitting assisted dying in some defined circumstances, the duty is on them to define those circumstances and recommend wording to enact it.

And that’s the challenge I throw down directly to Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick. Don’t just bitch and gripe: define precisely what provisions and wording you think would be acceptable.

If you fail to stipulate what you deem acceptable, then your opposition to “this flawed Bill” is, like the supposedly ‘soft’ opposition of other campaigners in the negative, merely a ruse.

And that’s rather suggested by your deliberate use of the term “killing” for what most Australians believe to be an understandable and welcome release. But let’s give you the benefit of the doubt… for now.

Will you rise to the constructive challenge, or lurk in the shadows merely making snide remarks and flip-flopping?

----

* Section 62 of the Act also requires a doctor to notify the Public Advocate if “significant treatment” is refused — but only if it is refused by a substitute decision maker on behalf of the patient: not by the patient herself. And “significant treatment” is defined as treatments (not non-treatments) which are likely to have a serious impact on the patient (bodily intrusion, risk to life, side effects or distress). “Significant treatment” in the Act does not mean treatment whose refusal may result in death.


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The Age reports on the three AMA dcotors' appearance at Spring Street

As reported in The Age, on Tuesday this week three AMA doctors fronted the Victorian Parliament to spread the word about their perceived horrors of an assisted dying law. Their arguments don’t hold water and politicians should see them for what they are: utter nonsense.

Doctors Stephen Parnis, Mukesh Haikerwal and Mark Yates say they will continue to lobby politicians.

With what?

Here is the ‘substance’ of their arguments — a sticky blomonge of the same old confected and discredited claims.

The vulnerable will be at risk

Dr Parnis said that such a law “puts the most frail and vulnerable in our community — the dying — at profound risk,” pointing to coercion, and patients not getting the medical care they need.

As I’ve explained before, the claim is flapdoodle — circular nonsense.

It’s a circular argument (a logical fallacy) because “the vulnerable” are by definition those “at risk” and vice versa. While the circularity makes the claim about assisted dying risks seem true, it's a false imputation.

By way of comparison, we could equally say that “the vulnerable will be at risk if we wear yellow socks on Wednesdays,” so we should outlaw that as well. Or anything else of which we disapprove and make our argument seem valid by attaching it to “the vulnerable being at risk.”

Let’s not talk about it

Dr Yates argued that the Parliament should not be pursing “divisive legislation.” That’s also a false argument because it's merely an appeal to emotion: avoiding legislating anything upon which there is any disagreement and discomfort. The consequence of this argument is to not legislate at all.

Patient trust in doctors

They also argued that assisted dying legislation would “change the doctor-patient relationship” — by which they mean “damage the relationship,” or they wouldn’t have mentioned it.

Again, as I have shown before, the empirical evidence from around the world is consistent with improved, not damaged, patient trust in doctors where assisted dying is legal.

The massive AMA flip-flop

But, as I’ve also pointed out before, the real telltale of the AMA doctors’ farcical representation to the Victorian Parliament is this: while opposing assisted dying legislation because patients might be pressured, subtly or otherwise, to choose death, the AMA officially endorses the right to refuse medical treatment, which includes life-saving treatment.

The hypothetical risk of patients being encouraged to refuse life-saving medical treatment is identical in kind to that of assisted dying. Yet in Victoria, the right to refuse is protected by just three statutory safeguards, while the assisted dying legislation is founded on no fewer than 68 safeguards.

So the AMA incoherently promotes one hypothetical pressure-to-die pathway with only three protections, while cruelly opposing a parallel path with an armada of protections. Let's award 10 out of 10 for the impressive flip-flop manoeuvre.

Conclusion

The AMA doctors’ claims are without merit and advancing them does no favours to their professional credibility.


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Another Catholic 'academic' spreads more misinformation. Photo: donaldytong

It’s very disappointing that Catholic theologian Dr Joel Hodge’s recent editorial in Fairfax media about assisted dying law reform contained misinformation: the same old tired and discredited story trotted out as though it's true. Dr Hodge also repeated an old and curiously one-sided (Catholic) examination of the hypothetical slippery slope.

Unhappily, the kind of misinformation that Dr Hodge advances muddies the waters and cruelly stands in the way of legislative action, which most Australians want.

An impeccable national survey conducted by scholars at Australian National University last year found 77% of Australians in favour of assisted dying law reform. Strong support (43%) outweighed strong opposition (4%) by more than ten to one. In the two states whose Parliaments are currently considering reform, NSW and Victoria, support stands at 75% and 79% respectively.
 

Non-religious support is 91%, and it’s high amongst Catholics (74%) and Anglicans (79%) as well. Bishops are jarringly out of step with the views of their flocks. And across the political spectrum, 87% of Greens, 80% of Labor, 77% of Coalition and 69% of minor party voters also want reform.

The electorate’s desires couldn’t be clearer. But politicians — who have little time to fact-check what they’re told — are fed the kind of misinformation Dr Hodge advances.

The false 'non-voluntary euthanasia slippery slope' argument

He quotes details from a medical journal article by Dr José Pereira, a Canadian Catholic physician. Like others who cite this article, Dr Hodge fails to mention that it was thoroughly debunked in a surgical deconstruction by expert scholars. They found Pereira’s claims variously unsupported by any evidence, unsupported by the sources he cited, or false, concluding that the article was “smoke and mirrors.”

Like other Catholics, Dr Hodge relies heavily on a thoroughly debunked journal article by Catholic Canadian doctor, José Pereira.A significant source of smoke, which Dr Hodge fans from this debunked article, is the claim regarding “900 Dutch deaths hastened without explicit request”: that is, non-voluntary euthanasia or NVE. Such figures are cited as ‘proof’ of the hypothetical slippery slope from legalised voluntary euthanasia to NVE.

Other opponents of assisted dying variously put the figure at 500 or 1,000. For the sake of argument, let’s say the 900 figure is equivalent to 1,000. Both the 500 and 1,000 figures, also repeatedly promoted by Catholic ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville and others, have been true. But here’s the thing.

What they don’t mention is that the 1,000 rate is from the 1990s when Dutch assisted dying was conducted under a general regulatory framework. In 2002 the Dutch euthanasia Act came into effect. Amongst the Act's many details was the establishment of a Commission which examines every reported case of assistance.

Since then, the Dutch NVE rate has dropped to 500, and even further. It has stayed low and is now similar to the NVE rate in the United Kingdom, the world’s gold standard for palliative care, and where assisted dying remains illegal.

There was a significant drop in the NVE rate in Belgium, too, after its euthanasia Act came into effect, also in 2002.

It is absolutely unconscionable that yet another Catholic commentator has trotted out the same old lie as though it's true. Dr Hodge is an academic and it is incumbent on him to check the facts before sounding off.By cherry-picking a single figure, opponents argue the opposite of the facts, implying or even directly claiming that NVE rates are caused by or have risen as a result of legalised assisted dying. I’ve comprehensively exposed this nonsense before, yet it comes up repeatedly.

It’s similar to other lines of Catholic argument against assisted dying, like the claim that Dutch elderly supposedly travel to Germany for healthcare because they fear being euthanised by their Dutch doctors — an outrageous falsehood. There’s also the faintly desperate claim that Dr Els Borst, the architect of the Dutch euthanasia Act, later regretted her reform — a fake claim she’s firmly corrected.

Consider too a Catholic bishop’s claim, without reservation and in formal evidence before an official Parliamentary inquiry, that Oregon’s general suicide rate was very low prior to its assisted dying Act but very high afterwards — contrary to the facts. Or a report cherry-picking just half a sentence from a journal paper to claim that a significant proportion of assisted-death patients in Oregon had symptoms of depression, when the other half of the very same sentence clearly stated that none of them had.

As Professors Griffiths, Weyers and Adams wrote in 2008, “imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation [and worse] took the place of careful analysis.” Sadly, the same still seems true today.

Major Catholic flip-flop on choosing death

Now let’s turn our attention to the core of Dr Hodge’s thesis. His plea for “the vulnerable” leads his argument and is heavily egged throughout the polemical pudding.

A comparison is moot: Australians have the right to refuse any unwanted medical treatment, even if it’s life-saving.

In my home state of Victoria, this right to refuse is enshrined in statute. The statute contains just three ‘safeguards’ for checking a refusal, and those only apply if the refusal is formally documented in writing but not if it’s only oral.

As I’ve explained in detail before, the consequence is that a person can refuse life-saving medical treatment with few if any checks and balances. In theory, just as Dr Hodge argues in regard to assisted dying, the person might feel pressured by greedy relatives, resource-poor doctors or others, to so refuse.

In this case, where is the Catholic call for protections? Where is the moral outrage on behalf of ‘vulnerable patients’? There is none. In fact, the Catholic Church’s call is quite the opposite. In a directive to all Catholic healthcare institutions in the USA, the Conference of Catholic Bishops make the Church’s position abundantly clear. They direct that there is no obligation for patients to use “disproportionate means of preserving life.”

The Catholic church's rhetoric against assisted dying is a major flip-flop when compared to its cosy attitude towards refusal of life-saving medical treatment: both might result in hypothetical pressure to choose death, yet only assisted dying has adequate safeguards.They define disproportionate means as “…those that in the patient’s judgement do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or entail an excessive burden, or impose excessive expense on the family or the community.”

So, under two identical hypothetical possibilities of inappropriate persuasion to choose death, Dr Hodge’s argument bristles against an assisted dying reform containing — as he acknowledges — no fewer than 68 safeguards, while his Church argues that patients may refuse life-saving medical treatment if the patient feels it’s “hopeless,” entails “excessive burden” or imposes “excessive expense” on others, with hardly any, or no statutory safeguards at all.

The incoherence, and repetition of misinformation, is indefensible. Civil debate on such an important matter deserves better.


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

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

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

The ‘abandonment’ fallacy

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

The ‘competition’ fallacy

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

The evidential fallacy

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

The equivalence fallacy

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

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

Shame on the bishops for disrespectfully equating the two.

The inconsistency fallacy

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

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

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

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

The not-so-hidden agenda

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

The authority fallacy

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

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

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

Minding their own flocks

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

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

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

May their God go with them in that endeavour.

 

This article was originally published in The Guardian.


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The Catholic Church flip-flops on 'the vulnerable'. Photo: Donaldytong

The Catholic Church in Australia is reeling from revelations at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, of a shocking number of cases that have occurred under its ‘pastoral umbrella.’ Yet it presumes to tell the rest of us about the hypothetical moral dangers of assisted dying laws for ‘the vulnerable.’

To add insult to injury, it flip-flops on its stance.

Never mind that the argument is contradicted by evidence

The Church’s favourite argument — already contradicted by scholarly analysis that curiously seems to be of no interest to the Church — is this: if people are given the choice of assisted dying, they will feel compelled to choose it, coerced by doctors, greedy relatives or others; subtly or otherwise.

No matter that health care workers routinely report that relatives usually try and persuade their dying loved one to endure yet another invasive and burdensome treatment; not dissuade them from it.

The flip-flop

If the Catholic Church were indeed genuinely concerned about coercion of ‘the vulnerable,’ then it would equally oppose the right to refuse medical treatment, particularly if the treatment were life-prolonging. But it doesn’t.

If granny might die as a result of refusing a particular medical intervention, then a doctor might persuade her to refuse in order to conserve medical resources. Or greedy relatives might persuade her so that they are relieved of the burden and expense of looking after her and gain earlier access to her estate.

As eminent legal scholar Gerald Dworkin has argued,1 if there’s a theoretical ‘slippery slope’ for assisted dying, it’s the same for the refusal of life-preserving medical treatment.

To hold different positions under the same risks is to flip-flop. That’s especially so when there are numerous safeguards built into assisted dying statutes, but currently few or none for the right to refuse life-preserving medical treatment.

Parallel theoretical risks: refusal of life-saving medical treatment, and assisted dyingThe Catholic Church approves of the theoretical risk of the left-hand course (refusal of life-saving medical treatment), but not of the theoretical risk of the right-hand course (assisted dying) which is lower in practice by virtue of considerably more statutory safeguards.

Local experience confirms risk is theoretical

In my home state of Victoria, where the right to refuse any unwanted medical treatment has been enshrined in statute for nearly three decades (the Medical Treatment Act 1988), how many prosecutions have there been under the Act’s provisions against inappropriate persuasion?

Precisely none. Not a single case. So much for the theory.

It all serves to highlight that the Catholic Church’s only real argument is that it believes that it’s morally wrong to deliberately hasten death. However, it avoids this argument because as a religious tenet, it doesn’t appeal to the masses.

Catholic directives

The Church’s flip-flop about ‘the vulnerable’ is not a one-off accident. Take for example the ‘Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services’ published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.2

The Bishops ‘direct’ that there is no obligation on patients to use disproportionate means of preserving life. They state that disproportionate means are:

“…those that in the patient’s judgement do not offer a reasonable hope of benefit or entail an excessive burden, or impose excessive expense on the family or the community.”

The Bishops further ‘direct’ that:

“The free and informed judgment made by a competent adult patient concerning the use or withdrawal of life-sustaining procedures should always be respected and normally complied with, unless it is contrary to Catholic moral teaching.”

Setting aside the Church’s hubris of dishonouring the patient’s choice if the Church disagrees, it would be theoretically easy for someone to persuade the patient that hope was not reasonable, that the burden would be too great, or that the cost to the family or society would be too high.

Suffering for our God’s (your own) good

On the next page, the Bishops expressly ‘direct’ that:

“Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

That’s unqualified. So, if you’re atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or even a Christian who believes assisted dying can be appropriate, as a patient in their institutions you are to be persuaded that suffering against your beliefs and wishes is ‘redemptive’ in the eyes of the Vatican’s version of a God.

In Australia in 2009, for the Office for Family and Life in the Catholic archdiocese of Adelaide, Mr Paul Russell argued in News Weekly that “there is a point to suffering” because:

“It’s about the profound connection that each and every life has to the incarnate God … We know that the sufferings we endure well are joined in some mysterious way to the sufferings of Christ.”

Pity any poor soul who doesn’t share Mr Russell’s views. Curiously, there is no mention of this underpinning belief in his anti-assisted dying blog, “HOPE.”

Invalid argument in any case

The Church’s argument that ‘the vulnerable’ will be ‘at risk’ from assisted dying laws — for example in the Victorian Bishops’ recent pastoral letter to the Catholics of Victoria opposing the upcoming assisted dying parliamentary Bill — is itself fundamentally invalid.

That’s because, as I’ve previously explained, it’s a circular argument: a logical fallacy.

Ban yellow socks on Wednesdays
A circular argument: We must ban yellow socks on Wednesdays or the 'vulnerable' will be 'at risk'.
‘The vulnerable,’ by definition are those ‘at risk,’ and will still be so if we wear yellow socks on Wednesdays. Therefore, we should ban such bright footwear midweek — and anything else we happen to oppose — on the same basis.

Might anyone suggest that “we should ban religion because the vulnerable will be at risk of succumbing to extreme religious views”?

Will the Church change its mind?

The Catholic Church does change its mind from time to time, though its reforms are glacially slow.

Take, for example, its theory of limbo, a place on the doorstep of hell where, the Church claimed, babies go if they die before they’re baptised: that they’d be prevented from entering heaven. It would be hard to imagine a crueller worry to put into the heads of uneducated new parents.

But in 2007, after centuries of confidently promoting the theory, the Catholic Church decided that it was wrong and buried it.

Will it change its mind on assisted dying? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.

Conclusion

The Catholic Church, reeling from its extensive failure to protect our most vulnerable — children — and notwithstanding some good individuals within, still presumes to morally lecture the rest of us with the logical fallacy of how ‘risky’ assisted dying legislation is supposed to be to ‘the vulnerable,’ while flip-flopping in support of refusing life-saving medical treatment under the same theoretical risk.

The Bishops’ rhetoric amply exposes their confected crisis against assisted dying as nothing but religious doctrine draped in faux secular garb… in reality a sheep in wolves’ clothing.

 

References

  1. Dworkin, G, Frey, RG & Bok, S 1998, Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York. pp.66ff
  2. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2009, Ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington DC, pp. 43, https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/health-care/upload/Ethical-Religious-Directives-Catholic-Health-Care-Services-fifth-edition-2009.pdf.

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Yet more research contradicts Prof. Margaret Somerville's Dutch NVE claim

I’ve criticised Catholic ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville in the past for promoting misinformation about assisted dying. One of her favourite stories is about supposed non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE) ‘contagion’ from voluntary euthanasia laws.

NVE is where a doctor deliberately hastens the death of a patient without a current explicit request from the patient.

Somerville claims that elderly Dutch citizens fear NVE — a slippery slope claim previously promoted by the Vatican. She stated that:

Old Dutch citizens are seeking admission to nursing homes and hospitals in Germany, which has a strict prohibition against euthanasia because of its Nazi past, and they're too frightened to go into nursing homes or hospitals in the Netherlands.”

She made the claim with certainty and without qualification.

She also stated it under the credentials of Professor, yet has offered not a shred of sound, verifiable evidence. That's unscholarly.

Her claim is premised on two false beliefs, that:

  1. The Dutch assisted dying law causes NVE —extrapolated to mean that elderly Dutch are therefore fearful of NVE in the Netherlands; and
  2. Because assisted dying is illegal in Germany, NVE doesn’t happen there — extrapolated to mean that elderly Dutch are confident in German healthcare and seek it in preference to their own.

Belief 1 is soundly contradicted by the evidence. Researchers have found small but significant rates of NVE in every country they’ve studied (though that to date hasn’t included Germany). They’ve also found that the rates of NVE in the Netherlands and Belgium have dropped (not risen) significantly since their assisted dying laws came into effect in 2002.

Now, new research comprehensively knocks Belief 2 off its perch, too.

In a pilot study just published in the German Medical Weekly, a team led by Professor Karl Beine of Witten/Herdecke University in Germany found that around 3.1% of doctors and nurses surveyed were aware of deliberately hastened deaths (which is illegal in Germany) in the past twelve months, and that 2.4% of them administered it themselves.

A new study has found that of German nurses and doctors who had intentionally administered life-ending drugs to patients (which is against the law), 40% of them had not been asked to do so by the patient: non-voluntary euthanasia. Further, of those who administered it themselves, 40% hadn’t been asked for it by the patient. That's NVE.

While previous evidence strongly suggested that NVE would occur in Germany as everywhere else, this study now factually establishes that it does.

The study authors concluded that “illegal intentional life-ending acts were administered by physicians and nurses in all healthcare areas [hospitals and nursing homes] under investigation.”

So much for Somerville’s second premise.

Now both premises of her misinformed NVE story are soundly contradicted by empirical research evidence.


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