Filibuster

To employ an artificial and overly-lengthy process in an attempt to stall or block a possible political outcome.

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A new book of anti-VAD polemical anecdotes, published by Springer

The other day a TV commercial from more than 30 years ago popped into my head. It was a humorous slice-of-life scene in which a teenage son gobbles down a breakfast bowl of Sultana Bran cereal. He complains that his health-kick girlfriend had made him eat vegetarian the night before. His family eye each other with mirth as he eats.

The punch line? “Don’t mention it’s healthy and they’ll eat it by the boxful.”

sultana_bran_ad_1990.jpg The Kellogg's Sultana Bran TV commercial from 1990.

Despite having worked in advertising research for years, I’m sure I hadn’t thought of this ad for at least a couple of decades. So what brought this vignette suddenly to mind?

It was the release of a new book by academic publisher, Springer: Devos, T, (Ed.) 2021, Euthanasia: Searching for the Full Story - Experiences and Insights of Belgian Doctors and Nurses, Springer, Leuven.

How terrific to have a new academic tome on the Belgian voluntary assisted dying (VAD) experience, I thought, as I downloaded the eBook version.

But then…

Imagine my surprise and disappointment then, to discover this is no scholarly tome with ethics-committee-approved study methodologies, carefully cited and transparent sources whose authenticity and veracity could be checked by anyone with a smidgin of scholarly acumen.

No, the kindest description I can give this blancmange of offenses is… a series of “essays” all singing from the same hymn sheet. More on that shortly.

The book launches into — let’s not beat about the bush — bullshit from the get go. In the Foreword, Jacques Ricot invokes the Hippocratic Oath as a still-relevant “religious standard”. Oh dear. You mean that oath that prohibits surgery, prevents women from entering the profession, and swears allegiance to ancient Greek gods?

He then goes on to describe VAD as a “desperate act of two people [the doctor and patient] trapped by helplessness.” He invokes cracks opening up in sea walls and waves that can only widen them. There’s your horizontal oceanic equivalent of the inevitable “slippery slope”.

Helpfully, he forewarns that all the authors in the book “do not believe that euthanasia can be a medical or a caring act.” OK, so not a range of views, then.

He also refers to the authors as “resistance fighters”, giving a heads-up that these writers feel they’re losing the battle.

And yet more

Then, anti-VAD campaigner Margaret Somerville repeats her rubbish claims that legalised VAD leads to suicide contagion. I’ve repeatedly taken Somerville to task over her serial misinformation, as well as noting the latest evidence from Switzerland which VAD opponents never mention… for a reason.

Somerville repeats yet again her refrain that “the case against [versus for] euthanasia is much more difficult to promote … because it is more complex”. No, it isn’t. It’s just that the majority now no longer take conservative religious doctrine as … shall we say, “gospel”. That’s especially true when her strongest ambit is to appeal to “a human way of knowing” (without mentioning her hobby horse, “moral intuition”, by name), and expressly noting that the stories that follow are not based on the usual scientific standards of evidence.

And there you have it. A series of “essays” by persons ideologically opposed to VAD, adorned with numerous uncheckable anecdotes and tawdry claims, appeals to slippery slopes, misrepresentation of data such as the non-voluntary euthanasia rate in Belgium, “intuitive” claims that the bereaved suffer as badly from lawful VAD as do families of those who have suicided violently and alone (despite multiple peer-reviewed studies showing VAD bereaved cope well). The list goes on.

Who are these people?

This of course begs the question: who are these people putting themselves forward as experts in VAD? Remember, these are people claiming expertise in a subject they’ve never participated in, and swear they never will. No doubt they are indeed experts in their own individual disciplines. But not in VAD.

It’s like asking (only) a bunch of hardened atheists to write an authoritative book on Christian spirituality.

Well, many of the names are already well-known in VAD (and especially anti-VAD) circles. Others took a bit of research to track down. Much of the work for the following backgrounders was accomplished by my friend the talented Chrys Stevenson. We compared notes.

The point of the research was not to attempt an inappropriate ad hominem attack. Without attempting to bore, I’ve already given a host of reasons as to why the quality of the essays in this book are very low. No, the point is to find common influences and agendas as to why that might be.

So lean in, dear reader, here we go. And to aid comprehension, may I suggest that you watch for the words in bold?

The editor — Timothy Devos

Timothy Devos is a Professor of Medicine (haematology) at Catholic University Leuven. He is a past president of the Medicine and Dignity of Man Association, an apostolate of the Catholic Regnum Christi movement, which believes that “the positions adopted by the Catholic Church in matters of bioethics are good, prudent”.

Foreword 1 — Jacques Ricot

Jacques Ricot is an Associate Researcher at Nantes University in France. In a 2003 paper he argues that secular philosophy needs to draw on the religious understanding of forgiveness. In 2014 he attended a conference on “dying with dignity” at the Catholic Notre Dame, Paris, articulating views harmonious with Catholic doctrine. In 2018, the European Federation of Catholic Doctors Associations and the Catholic Centre of French Doctors thanked him for valuable contributions to their thinking about human medicine.

Foreword 2 — Margaret Somerville

Professor of Bioethics at the (Catholic) University of Notre Dame Australia. (This is curious given that her CV mentions no earned tertiary qualification in either ethics or philosophy.) Somerville is a loyal Catholic who has for years been given pre-eminent position regarding Catholic bioethics above even the church itself at the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre, as I’ve pointed out before.

The L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre is run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth. The Catholic Archbishops of Perth and Sydney are the ultimate controllers of the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Foreword 2 — Wesley Ely

Dr Wesley Ely is a Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee. He is President of the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association. He has given numerous addresses from a Catholic perspective on topics such as “Preaching the gospel through service”, “Five principles of service in living the gospel”, “Deepening our prayer life”, “Viaticum: lessons learned from dying patients seeking our Lord”, “Top 10 tips at the heart of Christian discernment” and “A treatise on the true devotion to the blessed virgin by a lay doctor”.

Contributor — Eric Vermeer

Mr Vermeer is a nurse educator and the ordained Deacon of the Catholic diocese of Namur. His adopted son is also a Catholic priest. He is a past President of the European Institute of Bioethics, a group that claims to be independent and not of a religious nature, yet “attentive to religious traditions”. It lobbies for positions that are consistent with Vatican doctrine, such as against abortion and VAD. Quite a number of the Institute’s committees are known religious people, including some from the Catholic University of Leuven.

Mr Vermeer has recorded an anti-VAD video for ADF International, which runs the Arete Academy, a centre for religious academics based on “excellence and moral value”… at least according to their interpretation of the Bible.

Contributor — Catherine Dopchie

Dr Catherine Dopchie is an oncologist at the Centre Hospital of Wallonia. She told the Society for Religious Information Italy, published by the Catholic Press Agency, that “death is the enemy of mankind”, that “we have been created for life”, that “those who have met God in their lives, know that death is not the winner”, and that “every man is precious to God and that the entire life is sacred”.

Dr Dopchie has also recorded an anti-VAD video making unsubstantiated claims, for ADF International.

Contributor — Willem Lemmens

Having earned his doctorate at the Catholic University of Leuven, Professor Willem Lemmens is now Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Antwerp. In 2018, Professor Lemmens argued against VAD at the (Catholic) Anscombe Bioethics Centre in the UK, and spoke with Catholic newspaper Crux, to spread the misinformation that Belgium’s law was originally only for terminal illness (it never was), and to complain that (Catholic) Belgian Brothers of Charity were now allowing VAD to occur in their healthcare facilities.

He also sits on the General Council of the University Centre Saint-Ignatius Antwerp, which was established by a Jesuit (Catholic) order, and whose purpose is to continue to promote Jesuit Christian ideology.

Contributor — An Haekens

Dr An Haekens was educated at the Catholic University Leuven. She is a psychiatrist and medical director at the (Catholic) Alexian Care Group in Tienen, Belgium. It was established by the (Catholic) Belgian Brothers of Charity and states that “we start from our own Christian identity” and “we want to keep alive and implement the spirituality of the Alexians”.

Dr Haekens writes periodically for Belgian Catholic magazine Tertio, including stating that she would never participate in VAD. In 2021 she was interviewed by Belgian Catholic radio station Radio Maria, having been awarded the annual prize for spiritual care by the Professional Association of Care Pastors, the association for Catholic chaplains.

She is married to Dr Didier Pollefeyt, Catholic Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He is also an Honorary Professor at the Australian Catholic University.

Contributor — Rivka Karplus

Dr Rivka Karplus is a family physician and an internal medicine and infections specialist, based in Israel. In 2018 he attended a colloquium at the College des Bernardins in Paris — a Catholic theological and biblical studies centre — as a representative of the Jerusalem Kehilla, a congregation of Hebrew-speaking Catholics. He is warmly cited in a 2016 anti-VAD publication by the Catholic Caritas in Veritate Foundation, which attempts to provide representatives at the UN and other international organisations with Catholic, Christian “expertise and strategic thinking”.

Contributor — Marie Frings

Dr Marie Frings is a Brussells-based GP specialising in palliative care. She writes for Catholic group Consecrated Lives which promotes increasing evangelical commitments. In such an article in 2007, she cites the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as an authority on end-of-life decisions, and notes that sometimes she felt uncomfortable that patients would have their arms tied to be force-fed against their wishes so they lived indefinitely. She firmed her views that tube feeding was not mandatory when it is an extraordinary measure, with the help of several Catholic theologians and the pro-life committee of the episcopal conference of American (Catholic) Bishops.

She argued “respecting the conscience of others” in this regard, yet expressly rejects such conscience when it comes to choosing a peaceful, hastened death by VAD.

Contributor — Benoit Beuselinck

Dr Benoit Beuselinck graduated from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and has for years worked in the university’s hospitals. In 2017 he spoke at an anti-VAD conference at the Catholic Anscombe Bioethics Centre in the UK.

In an article in the Catholic magazine Logia, he claims that “proper palliative care makes assisted dying unnecessary”, even though it is well-established that this isn’t true.

He alleges in the Catholic Herald that Belgian nurses and social workers are quitting their jobs because palliative care units are being turned into “houses of euthanasia”, and that doctors in palliative care units “have to euthanise patients”. He also claims that some patients are afraid to go to hospital in case they are either coerced into euthanasia or are deliberately killed without their consent. This is a perversion of the original Netherlands accusation by the Vatican, which itself was entirely false.

Dr Beuselinck has also made an anti-VAD video for ADF International, making unsubstantiated claims that “doctors hide behind their patients’ wishes”, “supply creates demand”, “the doctor has his back to the wall”, “we want euthanasia for everyone”, “doctors who prefer not to do it are not respected”. He cherry-picks Belgian non-voluntary euthanasia data to wrongly make the case that their VAD law has caused (or at least worsened) that practice; the opposite of the truth. He says that euthanasia is an act against nature, opens the floodgates, that we no longer favour the love we show in taking care of someone, and that the depressed may now think “if the doctor can kill, then what is my life worth?”

Contributor — Julie Blanchard

Dr Julie Blanchard is a French-trained GP who specialises in palliative care. She works at the Catholic University of Leuven’s second hospital, in Namur, and never participates in VAD. Contrary to Dr Beuselinck’s claims that palliative care workers opposed to VAD are disrespected and forced to participate, Dr Blanchard reports that other doctors respect her opposition, and that VAD teams take care to ensure those who are against VAD are not present at the time of a lethal injection.

It's astonishing how inconsistencies like this — those opposing VAD are respected but are not respected — reduce the book’s coherence.

Contributor — François Trufin

François Trufin is an emergency nurse at St Nikolaus Hospital in Eupen, Belgium. The hospital was founded and continues to be sponsored by the Catholic church, “continuing [the] obligation of the founders” for a “Christian worldview”.

Religious petticoats and the Catholic Communicator’s Guild

So there you have it: the Catholic connections of the people involved in the production of this risible nonsense, which brims with innuendo, arguments and misinformation consistent with those of the Catholic church and other Catholic apologists.

I’ve written before how Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher has expressly argued for organising a line-up of sympathetic (i.e. Catholic) doctors, lawyers and others to put such information about, and yet, how they hide their religious petticoats while doing so. I’ve further exposed a network of Catholics who promote the church’s line on VAD — a network I call the Catholic Communicator’s Guild.

This book furnishes an international example of the same principle: a group of Catholics promoting entrenched church lines on VAD, but hiding their religious petticoats all the while.

You may wonder how many times the word “Catholic” appears in said book. The answer is: exactly zero. And mentions of “religion” and “faith” appear as abstract and conceptual argument, e.g. if a person of faith…

Not the first time it’s been published

But a further issue arises in respect of this book: it’s not the first time it’s been published. It was published two years ago by Mols Editions (Wavre) under the title Euthanasia: Behind the Scenes — Reflections and Experiences of Caregivers. Tellingly, it was published in French and mentions the French parliament grappling with VAD law reform. (The current French VAD Bill, which appears to be supported by a majority of MPs, has been filibustered with well over 2,000 (two thousand) amendments submitted by just five MPs.)

Unlike the original which you have to buy, this Springer version is “Open Access”, meaning you can download the book from the publisher for free. So is this further edition vanity publishing?

The reason I ask is that Springer Publishing is owned by Springer Nature. That’s a company whose purpose is to make money for its owners via academic publishing. So publications have to be paid for either by sales, or by authors. Since there are no sales, the authors (or someone on their behalf) will have had to pay for the book.

According to their fee schedule, Springer charge US$15k (around AUD$20k) plus taxes for publishing a tome of this nature.

So: who paid for the book?

Conclusion

Far from a carefully researched collection of studies into VAD practice in Belgium, this polemical book relies heavily on the “moral intuitions” of innuendo, unverified anecdote and misinformation. It’s consistent with the propaganda put about by the Catholic church, yet not once throughout the entire book does anyone mention their deep Catholic connections. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking they’d taken some care to cover their religious petticoats.

A serious compendium of proper, scholarly studies of VAD practice, good and bad, is always welcome. This book is not it.

In my view, the tome does no favours for Springer, which has a solid reputation for academic and scholarly publication.

And, back to that 1990 TV commercial for boxes of breakfast cereal. It had popped into my head as an analogue: “Don’t mention it’s religious and they’ll publish it by the book-full.”


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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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Multiple "non-religious" anti-VAD campaigns are being run through the Catholic Archdiocese of Hobart

If you're wondering how religious the organised opposition to voluntary assisted dying (VAD) law reform is, current ructions in Tasmania provide a marvellous petri dish of evidence.

Catholic church call to arms

Back in 2011, the now Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, wrote a lengthy, deliberative editorial against VAD, calling on the church to enlist people with no obvious religious connections to help the church fight VAD law reform. He wrote:

“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 and carefully consider who should deliver them, where and how.”

He went on to describe how various doctor, patient, lawyer, indigenous, disability and palliative care specialist groups might be corralled into this public relations campaign. (Nowhere in this musing did he reflect that the church's expectations of VAD calamity themselves might actually be queried or tested.)

Despite this, when promoting anti-VAD messages, he argued, “we do not have to hide our religious petticoats altogether.”

However, this standard of transparency seems to have been abandoned in recent years.

Pop-up group "Live & Die Well"

Take the Tasmanian pop-up group Live & Die Well, for example. Convened just six weeks ago for the sole and express purpose of defeating Tasmanian MLC Michael Gaffney's VAD bill, its website doesn't mention religion… at all. No identified religious connections nor religious arguments of any kind. Meticulously absent.

Indeed, the anti-VAD campaigning pamphlet the group puts about expressly advises folks when writing to their MPs, "DO NOT use religious arguments".

That's quite curious given the religious backing of the group, headed by Mr Ben Smith.

The Catholic church gets busy

Who is Mr Smith? He's the Director of the Life, Marriage and Family Office at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hobart. He reports directly to Archbishop Julian Porteous.

Unsurprisingly, core attributes given in the 2017 job advertisement for which Mr Smith was the successful applicant, require deep knowledge of the Catholic church, unquestioning support for its doctrines, and “highly-developed communication skills” to promote the church's agenda.

And, Messrs Smith and Porteous' arguments are strikingly similar, as I've revealed previously.

Does Mr Smith declare this on the Live & Die Well website? Nope. He's just a "resident of Hobart".

And the other "leaders"?

The other three "team leaders" at Live & Die Well are Mrs Patricia Gartlan, Mrs Karen Dickson, and Mr Daniel Bosveld.

Mrs Gartlan is a recipient of the Catholic church's Knights of the Southern Cross National Award for services to the "sanctity of life". (Recently, her "team leader" entry has been removed from the website.)

Mrs Karen Dickson is Chair of Mothers of Pre-Schoolers (MOPS) Australia, a Christian fellowship group. She's previously campaigned against same-sex adoption, which she opined is against God's will and would result in inevitable "moral decay" and the destruction of "the very foundations upon which society is built". Predictably, she's also actively campaigned against marriage equality, likening it to "dropping a brick on your foot".

Mr Bosveld is a university student (most likely protestant) and President of LifeChoice Tasmania, a tiny student group promoting the "life from conception through [to] natural death" position. His Facebook page "Likes" more than 20 Christian groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby.

Look… over there!

The extent to which Live & Die Well exquisitely attempts to paper over its religious petticoat is exemplified by the inclusion of two articles purporting to strengthen the non-religious case against VAD law reform.

The first is a piece republished from Spectator Australia, in which an atheist says he opposes VAD law reform. Of course there are non-religious people who oppose VAD law reform: but robust survey evidence shows that they're rare, and that in fact strong opposition is strongly correlated with high religiosity. Nor are there teams of atheists actively organising others, as the churches are, to oppose law reform.

The second is an article by Mr Wesley J. Smith which tries to imply that opposition to VAD law reform is more widespread amongst humanists than it is. He's a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. Remember them? They tried and failed to have "Intelligent design" (creationism with lipstick), taught as science in US schools.

I've had words to say about his misinformation and incoherent slippery slope nonsense here, here and here. Oh, and Live & Die Well omits the real publication date of the reproduced op-ed — which is more than a decade ago — presenting it as though it's fresh and contemporary.

Another group

Another group that's been actively and vocally opposing Mr Gaffney's VAD bill is Health Professionals Say No.

A major newspaper ad against the bill was recently taken out in the group's name. It was authorised by a certain Mr Ben Smith. Yes: that's the same Mr Ben Smith who is Director of the Life, Marriage and Family Office at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hobart. And the authorisation address is… the Catholic diocesan centre of Hobart.

One might wonder who actually paid for the ad…

The who's who

The group's website advances the usual slippery slope conjectures, and promotes the video Fatal Flaws, produced by Canadian loyal Catholic, Mr Kevin Dunn. That's the "documentary" that Go Gentle Ausralia's Fatal Fraud film exposes for its extensive religious connections, revealing how it employs emotional manipulation, fear, framing and omission to sow Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) in the minds of legislators and the public.

Prominent members of Health Professionals Say No include:

  • Prof. David Kissane, a Knight of Obedience to the (Catholic) Order of Malta.
  • Dr Maria Cogolini, a Catholic bioethicist.
  • Dr Megan Best, a Catholic bioethicist who got her facts fundamentally wrong.
  • Dr Douglas Bridge who has identified his "supreme Christian calling".
  • Prof. John Murtagh who says medicine and Christian ethics are inextricably linked.
  • Prof. Ian Olver, a lay preacher.
  • Dr Peter Coleman who has called for "placing the Christian revelation at the centre of university education."
  • Dr Peter Ravenscroft, past Chairman of the International Christian Medical & Dental Association.
  • Dr Anthony Herbert, former National Secretary of the Australian Christian Medical Fellowship.
     

Too many yet too few

It also includes Victorian, Dr Roger Woodruff. That's significant because one of the group's key claims is that people will feel unduly influenced to use VAD law, i.e. too many people will die from VAD. Yet Dr Woodruff previously published an opinion in the Journal of Palliative Medicine that the most striking feature of the VAD experience in Oregon is “almost total disinterest shown by the terminally ill” due to the small numbers of VAD compared to the number of cancer deaths.

So to sum up that approach: VAD mustn't be legalised because too many people will use it, but it's not worth legalising because too few people use it. Which is it? It can't be both.

Avoiding the ad hominem fallacy

We should be sure not to reject arguments automatically just because they are made by religious people. People of faith have just as much right to be heard in the public square: otherwise one would be arguing special privileges for non-faith Australians. Standards for public discourse are necessary, however.

“Dig here”

The connection being made here is not to reject arguments because of the religion of the informant, but to identify where misinformation almost exclusively comes from. I've been writing about this for years, with exposés on deep religious misinformation like:

  • The Vatican claim that Dutch elderly supposedly go to Germany for medical treatment because they fear being euthanised in Dutch care homes (the claim causing a diplomatic crisis).
  • The Catholic church in Australia spreading grotesque propaganda about Belgium's assisted dying practices, prompting a rare, savage rebuttal from the authors of the scientific study the church misrepresented.
  • The claim that a Council of Europe resolution "banned euthanasia" throughout Europe, when the resolution did no such thing.
  • Spreading the appalling conspiracy theory that 650 babies a year are euthanised in the Netherlands when no such thing happens.
  • Catholic Professor Margaret Somerville's repeated claims, based on cherry-picked data, wrongly claiming suicide contagion from VAD laws, and loftily dismissing extensive evidential rebuttals.
  • A mathematical confection by Catholic bioethicist Dr David Jones and Catholic loyalist and economist Prof. David Paton to attempt to "prove" suicide contagion in Oregon, in which they committed ten deadly sins.
  • The above report being glowingly endorsed by a Catholic psychiatrist, Dr Aaron Kheriaty.
  • Catholic-backed Alex Schadenberg of the "Euthanasia Prevention Coalition" and Catholic "HOPE"'s Branka van der Linden polemicising an article purporting to show 'inhumane deaths' under VAD, but which established no such thing. ("HOPE" was established by the Australian Family Association, a Catholic lobby group founded by Australia's most famous lay Catholic, B. A. Santamaria).
  • Indefensible slippery slope argument from Dr Bernadette Tobin, Catholic ethicist and daughter of B. A. Santamaria.
  • Serious cherry-picking including the negation of cited source meaning, by Victorian Catholic MP, Mr Daniel Mulino, whose report is hosted online by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
  • Senior clerics of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne misinforming a parliamentary inquiry.
     

One could go on, but I think the point is amply made.

Conclusion

Public misinformation about VAD law reform and practice arises largely via organised religious commentators who coalesce and focus their efforts against parliamentary law reform bills.

Given how common misinformation about VAD can be from organised religious sources, it's understandable that the public and legislators alike might simply 'switch off' if a commentator reveals a religious background.

It's no surprise then that coordinated religious public relations efforts against VAD law reform try to look as non-religious and as broad-based as possible.

 

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With thanks to my friend Chrys Stevenson for contributing research details in this report regarding members of Health Professionals Say No.


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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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The Victorian parliament is debating the Government's Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once famously branded the Senate “unrepresentative swill” for obstructing his legislative agenda. Today, the question of how representative our political masters are remains moot.

Major community support for VAD

Take voluntary assisted dying (VAD) for example. Poll after poll demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Australians want this additional choice for people in extremis at the end of life. The impeccable Australian Election Survey (AES) conducted by Australian National University scholars last year confirmed that 77% of Australians want VAD reform, with 13% undecided and just 10% opposed.

Strong support (43%) is ten times greater than strong opposition (4%), and support is high across the political spectrum: amongst minor/independent (69%), Coalition (77%), Labor (80%) and Greens (87%) voters. Public support has been in the majority for more than four decades.

Political support missing in action

But since the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1996, none of the many VAD Bills before various state parliaments has passed. And the Northern Territory’s Act was torn down by the federal parliament just eight months after coming into effect.

A 2008 university study of federal MP voting opportunities found 100% of Greens, 55% of Labor, and a paltry 17% of Coalition MPs voting in favour of VAD.

New analysis

Now, a new analysis of the ten state VAD Bills since 2000 where final divisions were called, offers further insights. It found 100% of Greens MP voting opportunities were in favour, along with 51% of Labor, 29% of minor party and independent, and a similarly paltry 17% of Coalition MPs. Excluding South Australia, whose parliament has debated the greatest number of VAD Bills, the Coalition support rate was just 9%.

Overall, while state Labor MP votes fell 29% short of Labor voter attitudes, Coalition MP votes fell an astonishing 60% short of Coalition voter attitudes. At the state level, Coalition MPs had the most voting opportunities — nearly half (48%). No wonder passing VAD Bills is challenging.

It begs the question, how is it that our legislative representatives fail to reflect clear public majority views on matters of conscience for so long?

Hidden reasons behind MP opposition

Obviously, lobbying on both sides of the conversation in part informs MPs’ views, but there are several more persuasive factors.

For a start, there’s a “truism” held by many MPs that their vote in favour of a VAD Bill would lose them more votes at a general election than would a vote against the Bill. However, the opposite has been demonstrated in multiple studies.

Further, I’ve shown before that opposition to VAD is largely religious.  A university study has also found that those who are more religious and who are politically engaged tend to hold very conservative views. So while there are religious MPs on both sides of politics, Coalition MPs are naturally more inclined to hold much more conservative views.

But that doesn’t fully explain the massive 60% representation gap on the Coalition side, either.

In good conscience?

A key factor lies in the seemingly reassuring principle of the “conscience vote.” The major parties have announced that their members are accorded a conscience vote (also known as a “free vote”) on the VAD Bill. That simply means that there’s no official published party policy on the matter and party members may vote freely on the basis of their own conscience.

There are two significant issues with this state of affairs.

The first is that the member may refer exclusively to their own conscience. But what if the MP’s conscience is at odds with the electorate’s? For my home state of Victoria, the 2016 AES study found 79% of the community in favour of VAD. There are 88 members of the Victorian parliament lower house, and just 40 members in the upper house. Therefore, it’s possible for as few as just 20 Victorian MPs to vote “no” in order to extinguish the will of 3.2 million Victorians (79% of 4.05 million Victorian voters).

If that weren’t enough, the second issue is that the right to ‘conscience’ is granted only in respect of the Bill itself, not on procedural matters about the Bill. It can make a huge difference.

How the parry works

Here’s what happened in 2008 when Victorian Greens MP Colleen Hartland’s VAD Bill was before the Legislative Council. MPs were afforded a conscience vote, and many of them had said they were supportive of VAD in general, but couldn’t support Hartland’s Bill in its current form. (That’s also a common ruse of MPs who in reality oppose the reform in principle but wish to appear ‘open minded’.)

When the final vote on Hartland’s Bill was lost, then Greens MP Greg Barber immediately moved a motion to refer the Bill to a parliamentary committee so that it could be improved to MPs’ satisfaction. Neither Labor nor Coalition parties afforded their members a conscience vote on this procedural matter, instead directing MPs to vote against such motions. The referral, which may have resulted in Victorians having wider end-of-life choices years ago, was cynically buried.

Most voters remain unaware of the shenanigans played in the corridors of power to achieve such results.

Australia’s special political conservatism

They’re not the only shenanigans, though. Another university study comparing federal MP conscience voting patterns in the UK, New Zealand and Australia found Australia to be different, accounting for why the UK and NZ have legalised marriage equality, while Australia hasn’t.

Firstly, the centre-left in Australia has a larger proportion of Catholic members than in the UK and NZ, accounting for some of the shortfall in Labor representation of progressive views.

Secondly, those amongst Coalition ranks, but with more liberal social consciences, had been lashed by Coalition party whips to vote against progressive reform. So while there was a public display of fairness and neutrality, the reality was quite different.

Borne out in state parliaments

These findings are replicated in Australian state parliament votes too, with Coalition MPs rarely if ever voting in favour of progressive social reform. Coalition MP votes on VAD including and since Hartland’s legislative attempt in 2008 are telling: in Victoria 2008 10:5 against, in Tasmania 2009 6:0 against; in Western Australia 2010 19:1 against; in NSW 2013 10:0 against; in South Australia 2016 14:7 against and in Tasmania 2017 13:1 against.

Rather than reflect 77% Coalition voter support for VAD, Coalition MP voting patterns reflect the highly negative stance of party leaders, whipped through the parliamentary party membership. For example, then WA Premier Mr Colin Barnett made it clear he thought assisted dying was “government-sanctioned killing”. Tasmanian coalition leader Mr Will Hodgman said that “protection for [vulnerable] people cannot be guaranteed.” Then-NSW Premier Mr Barry O’Farrell declared himself “strongly opposed”.

Back to Victoria’s Bill under debate

The situation in Victoria is looking somewhat more positive, with Premier Mr Daniel Andrews and many in his Cabinet publicly supporting reform. A lengthy, detailed, professional and well-resourced process has informed the crafting of the Bill.

However, opposition leader and would-be Premier Mr Matthew Guy has stated his resolute opposition to it and that he intends to vote “no”. That would mean he is quite comfortable for his own personal view to extinguish the contrary views also held in good conscience by 34,626 of the 43,831 voters in his own electorate of Bulleen, and 3.20 million of Victoria’s 4.05 million voters. (Electorate numbers as at 10 October 2017.)

An obvious solution

There’s an obvious solution for MPs whose own consciences disallow them from reflecting the overwhelming majority conscience of the electorate.

They could consider abstaining — simply absenting themselves from the chamber during the division. That would keep their own consciences intact while allowing the electorate’s conscience to be reflected.

I’m a constituent of Mr Guy’s. Over a period of months I made six robust attempts to meet with him to discuss these matters, especially the covert whip arrangements and the consideration of abstention. I can be persuasive in obtaining appointments, but my best efforts proved wholly unfruitful.

As I said to Mr Guy’s private assistant after the last failed attempt, voters could be forgiven for believing he’s more interested in meeting allegedly shady characters in fancy Brighton restaurants, than meeting with his own constituents.

Victorians are watching the parliamentary VAD debate. We’re taking notes that will inform our votes at the state election late next year.

Indications are at present there’s a good chance that Victorian MPs won’t be “unrepresentative swill”.


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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 Parliament of Victoria is currently debating an assisted dying Bill.

As the Parliament of Victoria prepares to debate an assisted dying Bill, South Australian Catholic anti-assisted-dying lobbyist Mr Paul Russell is at it again. This time he's sent a missive to Victorian politicians shouting about, amongst other things, a crisis of assisted dying numbers in Washington state. He’s conveniently cherry-picked his arguments again.

Mr Russell wrote that in Washington state:

“deaths from lethal drugs prescribed under the Act have nearly quadrupled (376%) from 51 in 2010 to 192 in 2016.”

Now I’ve called Mr Russell out before for misinformation, for example his laughable ‘secret’ opinion poll, promoting a misrepresentation of a Council of Europe determination, complaining at the same time that people will die too early but yet live too long, and spreading despicable misinformation about Dutch neonatal euthanasia.

His latest claim extends his misinformation crown title.

Don’t get me wrong. He cites the correct raw data figures for Washington. But he packages them up handily with FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) wrapping, all tied up with the most sinister bow he can muster.

I’ve criticised the use of uncontextualized raw data before, and I do so again.

The relevant facts

Washington state legalised assisted dying by ballot in 2008. The following year the law was put into practice, and 2010 was the first full year of its operation.

Here’s the rate of assisted deaths as a proportion of all deaths in Washington state for all the years on record. As you can see, the rate hasn’t even reached one half of one percent of all deaths in 2016.

 2009 

 2010 

 2011 

 2012 

 2013 

 2014 

 2015 

 2016 

 0.07% 

 0.11% 

 0.14% 

 0.17% 

 0.23% 

 0.24% 

 0.30% 

 0.35% 

 

Never ones to miss out on an opportunity to spread FUD, if it were just one case last year and two this year, assisted dying opponents would be shouting from the rooftops: “Crisis!! 100% increase!!”. But in reality, only a small minority use the law, yet thousands of patients and their families are given comfort by the option being avaialble even if they don't use it. That message was made loud and clear by Oregon Senator Ginny Burdick. Washington's Death With Dignity Act is modelled on Oregon's, and Oregon's Act has been in effect for twenty years.

A Catholic trifecta

Of course in his missive, Mr Russell, like his fellow Catholic whom I’ve also called out for misinformation, Prof. Margaret Somerville, avoids referring to Swiss data. And their fellow Catholic Mr Daniel Mulino, who furnished a minority report to the Victorian Parliament’s recommendations on end of life choices, a report I’ve also called out for stunning misinformation, fudges his numbers about Switzerland, referring to data from 1998 without further context.

Why do these lobbyists avoid or selectively refer to the Swiss situation? Because the actual data is an inconvenient truth to their FUD story-telling.

An inconvenient truth

Switzerland’s assisted dying law came into effect seventy-four years ago, in 1942. If just one person had used the law in 1942, using Mr Mulino’s favourite annual increase figure of 17.5%, that would equate to 110,338 people pursuing an assisted death in Switzerland in 2014.

I say 2014 because that’s the most recent year for which official Swiss Government assisted dying figures are available. And what was the actual figure in 2014? There were 742 cases of assisted dying amongst Swiss residents, and Dignitas reports that it assisted 198 foreign nationals. That’s a total of 940 assisted deaths.

Let’s add another 60 foreign-national assisted death cases from the much smaller Swiss society that provides accompaniment for foreigners. That makes around 1,000 cases in 2014, including all those who came from all over the world. And it’s less than one hundredth of the minimum rate the doomsayers predict by cherry-picking one statistic that suits their argument.

Swiss law has the fewest safeguards

The Swiss assisted dying law has none of the safeguards of the Washington law. By Mr Russell and Co’s reckoning, you’d think that the Swiss (and those who visit) would be dropping off like flies.

By way of further comparison, the doomsayer number of assisted deaths for 2014 (a minimum of 110,338 cases) is substantially greater than the total number of deaths in Switzerland that year: 63,938. It’s an obvious impossibility.

In 2014, the Swiss rate of assisted deaths including all the foreign nationals who came to use its law, was 1.5% of all deaths; and 1.2% for resident-only cases.

And the rate of assisted deaths in Luxembourg in 2014 (legalised in 2009), whose laws are much more liberal than Washington’s though stricter than Switzerland’s, was 0.17% of all deaths. It’s odd how the doomsayers don’t report Luxembourg data, either.

And what are these cases?

These are cases of people in extremis with no realistic prospect of relief or improvement, choosing a peaceful assisted death as a better option than being forced to prolong their torture, according to their own deeply-held beliefs, values and examined consciences.

Mr Russell believes they should be required to endure their torture. There is a point to it, he says: because it joins them “in some mysterious way to the sufferings of Christ”... whether others believe in Christ, or at least Mr Russell’s version of him, or not.

You won't find this degree of candour on his anti-assisted dying website, but you can find it at NewsWeekly, which is run by the National Civic Council (NCC), itself established by Australia's most famous and conservative lay Catholic, B. A. Santamaria. Mr Russell has been President of the NCC South Australian chapter.

It’s not the numbers, it’s the circumstances

To be clear, in no jurisdiction has its legislature enacted access to assisted dying on the basis of a numeric ceiling. They’ve enacted access on the basis of intolerable and unrelievable suffering. And to this day, those are the folks who may be granted access to an assisted death.

Conclusion

Again, Mr Russell (and colleagues) do themselves no favours by conspicuously cherry-picking the data they want to use, and wrapping it up in threatening garb to create FUD amongst politicians.

Wiser heads will prevail in Victoria.


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The Australian reported a confected life insurance policy crisis. Photo: Flickr, Pictures of Money

News Ltd columnist Jamie Walker recently reported a confected new crisis between assisted dying law reform and the Australian life insurance industry. It's a triple-sham argument as I reveal.

Last Friday, The Australian columnist Jamie Walker delivered a shrill pitch against assisted dying titled “insurers baulk at ‘suicide cover’ as SA debates euthanasia.” In it he reported that legalisation of assisted dying would “force a showdown with the $28 billion life insurance industry” and would be “disastrous for the industry.”

Such was the article’s hyperbole that it seemed the legalisation of assisted dying might single-handedly lead to the collapse of a massive section of the national economy.

The fall guy for the argument was the current South Australian (SA) Voluntary Euthanasia Bill. Section 28 of the Bill prohibits insurers from excluding a life policy payout for an insured person who dies under the Bill’s voluntary euthanasia provisions.

Mr Walker’s article argued that such an exclusion would be in conflict with Commonwealth law. (Section 228 of the Life Insurance Act 1995 (Commonwealth), which is not named in the article, expressly permits exclusion of suicide cover from life insurance policies.) In the article, Financial Services Council (FSC) CEO Sally Loane refers to Section 109 of the Constitution of Australia which rules that Commonwealth law prevails over State law when there is any conflict between the two.

If these points were all the relevant facts, then the SA Bill’s insurance exclusion clause would simply fail to be of any force or effect and the world would keep turning as before.

But they aren’t all the facts.

Section 28 of the SA Bill states that insurance policies may not exclude a payout in relation to ‘voluntary euthanasia.’ However, the Commonwealth Life Insurance Act is completely silent on the matter of voluntary euthanasia: it permits policy exclusion only in respect of ‘suicide.’

Further, Section 23 of the SA Bill expressly states that a death under its provisions is not a suicide, and may not be determined as such even by the Coroner.

Consequently, there is no actual ‘suicide’ conflict in law. Indeed, a similar ‘not a suicide’ provision has stood in Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act (DWDA) since 1997 with no crisis — or even ripple — in the USA insurance industry.

So much for the spectacular “showdown.”

The ‘suicide’ argument not only fails in law, but in practice as well. Most life insurance policies in Australia do in fact cover suicide, except for the first year of insurance. To avoid the creation of an insurance policy with the intention of a payout claim by suicide, most Australian policies exclude suicide for the first thirteen months. That extends across the first year of insurance plus a 30-day grace period to pay the renewal premium.

Thus, most Australian life insurance policies cover suicide once a renewal premium has been paid.

And what effect would assisted dying coverage have on the life insurance industry? The Society of Actuaries has published a thorough analysis of the impact of Oregon’s DWDA on USA insurance companies. It calculated such a microscopic potential effect that it concluded there would be no “material impact on life insurance claim costs.”1

Therefore, even if one were to argue that the assisted death of a terminally ill individual — after careful consultation and deliberation — was ‘suicide,’ most Australian life insurance policies would still be due to pay out just as if the individual had died from what we usually refer to as suicide. Plus, it would have no material effect on insurers.

It was largely redundant then for the FSC to write to the South Australian Government to express ‘concern’ that the SA Bill doesn’t refer to a death under its provisions as ‘suicide,’ thereby subtly acknowledging that there was no ‘suicide conflict’ in law in the first place. (In fact it is a Private Member’s Bill, not a Government one.)

Such was its reaction, it would be hard to imagine that the FSC doesn’t already plan to instead try and persuade the Federal Parliament to add ‘assisted dying’ alongside ‘suicide’ as a permissible exclusion in Section 228 of the Life Insurance Act, even in the absence of significant benefit for insurers. If successful, Commonwealth law precedence would then protect insurer rights to expressly exclude life cover for assisted dying regardless of any State laws to the contrary.

But insurers would then be declaring to the Australian public, the overwhelming majority of whom want assisted dying choice legalised, that “we will pay out on the policy if you die in extremis from the horrific but ‘natural’ effects of your illness, or you are driven into pharmacological oblivion through terminal sedation until you die no matter long it takes, or you starve and dehydrate yourself to death by refusing all interventions and sustenance, but we will not pay out if you die a lawful, peaceful, physician-assisted death in the same circumstances.”

Good luck with the public relations exercise on that one.

In the meantime, Australians can see for themselves what a beat-up this report was: in the first instance concocting a pseudo-crisis about supposed conflicts in ‘suicide’ insurance law, in the second instance side-stepping the fact that most Australian life insurance policies currently cover suicide anyhow, and in the third instance ignoring independent analysis showing no significant effect for the life insurance industry after all.

What will be the next confected argument against assisted dying choice for Australians in untreatable extremis? Just wait for it.

This article was originally published in OnlineOpinion.

References

  1. Jaffe, JM 2016, 'An actuarial analysis of the Oregon Death With Dignity Act', Product Matters, Jul(104), pp. 23-25.

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Palliative Care Australia's position statement on assisted dying.

I’ve written previously about palliative care specialists trying to filibuster assisted dying law reform. In this F file, I reveal how Australia’s peak body for palliative care (PC), Palliative Care Australia (PCA), segues from a state of ignorance to its own filibuster that would stall assisted dying choice.

First up, let me say that I hold deep admiration for the generally excellent services PC specialists provide at the bedside. I believe that PC deserves strong support and good funding. The peak body’s leadership in regard to its stance on assisted dying, however, is of a dramatically lower calibre.

Revised policy statement

In PCA’s latest incarnation of its Position Statement on ‘Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide’,1 the organisation says that:

“Public discussion and policy development on issues related to euthanasia and physician assisted suicide should be informed by research. There is insufficient research into euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.” — Palliative Care Australia, Position Statement

One can only agree wholeheartedly with the first sentence. Of course public discussion and policy development should be informed by research wherever possible.

The filibuster

And there follows the filibuster rub — PCA unequivocally claims that there is insufficient research. The logical consequence of PCA's juxtaposition is that we ought to muzzle public discussion and policy development because, PCA alleges, there is insufficient research to inform it.

Certainly in terms of Australia there are only a handful of published studies into attitudes and practices. But assisted dying is illegal in Australia. There are very substantial ethical and legal issues when it comes to conducting research.

Who is PCA to claim "insufficient research"?

PCA is the peak body for PC, a specific discipline within medicine that represents (well-paid) doctors. It runs a staffed office in Fyshwick ACT, and is overseen by a Board and Executive. It has a key purpose of lobbying in the halls of power in the Federal Parliament, and, presumably on the basis of the statement above, has a goal of ensuring that government PC policy (and funding) is informed by research. You'd think it might have some resources and connections to go looking for some research evidence.

A revealing comparison

In comparison, I conduct my assisted dying law reform work on a completely pro-bono basis, as a single individual, in my spare time. I have a formal literature collection on end-of-life decision making, including assisted dying, of currently over six thousand articles. I’m not talking about mere opinion published in the media: I’m talking about articles published in professional journals and in official government and agency reports.

I just ran a quick check across my database, looking for items specifically in respect of assisted dying (not medical or palliative care in general) in the Netherlands, Belgium and Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal for some time. Here’s what I found.

In respect of assisted dying the Netherlands I hold 366 journal articles and 25 official reports. For Belgium, I hold 152 journal articles and 11 official reports. And for Oregon I hold 144 journal articles and 32 official reports.

That’s a total of 662 journal articles and 68 official reports in respect of three lawful assisted dying jurisdictions. And that doesn’t count any holdings of book chapters, conference papers and the like. The journal article count will be somewhat overstated because a minority of journal papers are about more than one lawful jurisdiction (e.g. the Netherlands and Belgium). So let’s estimate that downwards to, say, a mere 400 journal articles.

That’s an abundance of evidence from and review about jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal. Could we always know more about assisted dying? Sure.

Double standards when it comes to evidence

We could also know a lot more about PC. I recently asked PCA for a simple but critical headline statistic — one you’d think was necessary to inform policy about PC resources and funding: “what proportion of Australians who experience a non-sudden death (i.e. deaths where PC might be relevant) actually receive PC?”

PCA kindly responded, but the answer in a nutshell was “we don’t know.”

But I wouldn't suggest for a moment that we muzzle “public discussion and policy development on issues related to PC” because the peak body hasn't done enough research to calculate (or even estimate) a fundamental policy-informing statistic.

Conclusion

The Australian community would be better served if PCA acquainted itself with the extensive available literature on assisted dying in lawful jurisdictions (as well as headline PC statistics), and dropped its inappropriate filibuster.

 

References

  1. Palliative Care Australia 2016, Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide: Position statement, viewed 1 Sep 2016, <http://palliativecare.org.au/download/2448/>.
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Yesterday in a prominent opinion piece in The Age newspaper,1 palliative care specialists argued that palliative care is imperfect and in need of an injection of funds. I agree on both counts.

Nurse Peter Hudson, and doctors Mark Boughey and Jennifer Philip of the Centre for Palliative Care argued that instead of assisted dying as recommended by the recent Victorian Parliament committee report, increased funding of palliative care is ‘the answer.’

Key arguments

Here are the highlights of their opinion piece:
  1. They refer to assisted dying, a neutral expression now in common use amongst both lay commentators and scholars, as a euphemism. Instead they laboriously refer to assisted suicide (suicide is universally seen as a pejorative term with all its baggage about mental illness and substance abuse), and euthanasia (consistently omitting the qualifier ‘voluntary’).
  2. Dying at home should not be the gold standard (despite the great majority preferring it); instead, dying in hospital can be ‘preferred.’
  3. In a profound lack of self-reflection or consistent logic, they say that assisted dying ought to remain outlawed because its outcomes are uncertain. Even assuming the premise of the statement, this would be an identical argument to ban palliative care, whose outcomes are at least equally if not considerably more uncertain.
  4. They falsely imply that users of assisted dying not infrequently experience “very unfavourable” reactions to the drugs. This is simply untrue and I challenge them to provide the empirical evidence that they state is so very important.
  5. Tellingly, they describe a peaceful assisted death as “sanitised,” signalling their intrinsic disapproval of other’s choices.
  6. They say that focus should remain on increased resourcing of palliative care, failing to mention that the Parliamentary committee’s report indeed recommended increases in palliative care funding and improvement of evidence-based practice. Overseas evidence also reveals improvements in palliative care in jurisdictions with assisted dying legislation. There’s no false dichotomy between palliative care and assisted dying as the authors try to insinuate.
  7. They assume that medical interventionism (what they have to offer) is the correct and normative response, ignoring the fact that some people simply don’t want more interventions.
 

The filibuster

In a journal article recently published by two of the opinion piece authors,2 and repeated in principle in the Centre’s submission to and appearance before the Parliamentary inquiry,3,4 they say that:

“Increased resources and effort must be directed toward training, research, community engagement, and ensuring adequate resourcing for palliative care to benefit many before further consideration is given to allocating resources into legalising EAS to respond to the requests of a few.”

Notice two things about their recommendation—the filibuster.

Maximising what cannot be done

Firstly, they say we must not just ban assisted dying, but that it is dangerous even to talk about it: palliative care must be improved even “before further consideration is given.” The specific purpose of this part of the filibuster is to maximise what cannot be done: to position even mere conversation, let alone actual reform, as ‘unsafe.’

Maximising the delay

Secondly, nowhere in their argument do they provide a single quantitative metric (and which they strongly argue is necessary for the legalisation of assisted dying) by which the palliative care reforms they advocate might be judged: not a single dollar amount nor a single performance benchmark amongst their many recommendations.

How much will reforms cost, how long will they take, and what performance measure improvements would need to be achieved for the expenditure to be judged effective? What performance measures would need to be reached before it was then ‘safe’ to even consider assisted dying? The authors are entirely mute on these critical matters, while making precisely these evidential demands of assisted dying.

So, the opinionists’ argument allows them to indefinitely say that “more improvements are needed in palliative care before we even talk about assisted dying,” because further ‘improvements’ are always possible.

But all that was a ruse anyhow

In any case, the authors say in their submission to the Parliamentary inquiry that there are numerous problems (spurious, I argue) with legalising assisted dying; that they doubt they could be overcome; and then finally “it should not be construed that we would support the legalisation of EAS if efforts were made to address [the problems].”4, page 6 (Curiously, they omit the third, critical statement from their more public opinion piece.)

This truly exposes the classic filibuster… an open-ended call with no metrics, which therefore can be deemed never to have been met. How convenient. But, even if they were met, the authors still wouldn’t support reform. This begs the question:

If the authors are as so firmly evidence-based—as they take pains to emphasise—why would they not support a reform if the evidence endorsed it?

There must be something other than evidence that drives their entrenched opposition to assisted dying: something so important that it renders all their previous arguments null and void. What might that be?

Who are these people, anyway?

It’s informative to answer the question of who these three from the Centre for Palliative Care are. The Centre sounds like a neutral government body. It isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that these three are skilled and compassionate practitioners and that the Centre delivers good services.

In reality the Center is a section of Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital. That’s an organisation that proudly states “as a Catholic healthcare service we bring God’s love to those in need through the healing ministry of Jesus.”

I believe St V’s to be a high-quality healthcare institution, but too bad if the patient just wants evidence-based medical care and not the ‘healing ministry’ of a religious figure they may not subscribe to.

The reason this is important is this: what the three authors say about assisted dying is entirely consistent with the Vatican’s stance. I have no idea if any of the authors are Catholic, but what would be entirely surprising is if they published anything at odds with the views of the Vatican given their Centre is deeply embedded within the largest Catholic health and aged care service provider in the country.

For clarity and fairness, I once again place on the public record that I am agnostic.

The ‘Catholic card’

Before Messers Paul Russell, Alex Schadenberg and others leap onto their campaigning steeds to megaphone that I’m ‘playing the Catholic card’ (just wait for it!), let me be clear that I specifically am doing precisely that. For sure, The Catholic Church is not the only religious body resolutely opposed to anyone having the choice of assisted dying, but it’s the premier one.

And, Messers Russell et al would be absolutely right to point out that the authors didn’t raise a single religious argument, so let me save them the bother.

Religious opposition dressed up in secular garb

And that’s the point. It’s abundantly clear from multiple sources that religious opponents have actively decided that they will absolutely avoid using religious arguments because they know it will lose them the debate.

Media identity Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead podcast series makes this avoidance abundantly clear from the Australian perspective. His insights, having attended a global anti-euthanasia conference in Adelaide, are important and revealing. 

From the North American perspective, a study just published by Associate Professor Ari Gandsman of the University of Ottawa in Death Studies5 reports uncanny North American similarities. Assisted dying opponents have actively decided to cease using religious arguments. Instead, their objective is to create an atmosphere of FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt. It is only this now, they agree amongst themselves, that will keep assisted dying off the statute books. As Gandsman explains (and I paraphrase), religious opponents have moved from ‘it’s a sin’ to ‘but think about all the perceived risks!’

Again, I reiterate that the three opinion piece authors are likely to be fine nurses and doctors (I have never met any of them), but I do say that their incoherent and self-contradictory arguments against assisted dying, remaining opposed even ‘if’ the evidence for it stacks up, is neither their finest work, nor varies one iota from the religious anchor that the Vatican provides to their Centre’s services.

The importance of mutual respect

If a person says to me “I believe assisted dying is wrong,” I respect that view and admire their resolution. For themselves. Including if it is underpinned by religious belief. If you believe that assisted dying, or surrogacy, or other contentious issue is wrong, don’t participate in it. 

But don’t expect that your own view of your own God trumps everyone else’s God—or lack thereof. In Australia for example, the majority of citizens are not Catholic. And most of those who are—three out of four—disagree with the Vatican’s opposition to assisted dying. The Vatican’s view then is not particularly relevant to anyone but its most ardent adherents.

Respect in both directions is warranted but is rather lacking from the more religious end. My argument is not against Catholicism itself. There are very fine Catholics on both sides of the debate, doing their best to live a deliberatively ‘good’ life.

Conclusion

We can do without the incoherent and indefensible nonsense advanced in secular garb by the religiously opposed.

Be clear folks: the FUD campaign is on its last legs. I will be further exposing rubbish arguments posed by those with religious connections but couched in non-religious language.

In the meantime you can see the clumsy, failed attempt at a filibuster by these three opinionists for what it is.

 

References

  1. Hudson, P., Boughey, M. & Philip, J., 2016, Victoria's proposed euthanasia laws are flawed, Melbourne: Fairfax Media, Accessed 21 Jun 2016, http://www.theage.com.au/comment/victorias-proposed-euthanasia-laws-are-flawed-20160620-gpn9p2.html
  2. Hudson, P., Hudson, R., Philip, J., Boughey, M., Kelly, B. & Hertogh, C., 2015, Legalizing physician-assisted suicide and/or euthanasia: Pragmatic implications for palliative care, Palliative and Supportive Care, 13(5), 1399-1409.
  3. Hudson, P., 2015, Inquiry into end of life choices: Submission 905 to the Parliament of Victoria, Centre for Palliative Care, St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne.
  4. Hudson, P., Boughey, M. and Philip, J., 2016, Witness Appearance Transcript: Inquiry into end-of-life choices - Centre for Palliative Care, Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, 24 Feb.
  5. Gandsman, A., 2016,“A recipe for elder abuse:” From sin to risk in anti-euthanasia activism. Death Studies, In press.
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