The Sisters of The Good Samaritan - Protection of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults
December 2011

Reflecting on Quentin Dempster’s “The Right to Die”

In November 2011 the ABC’s 7.30 NSW program produced a story entitled “The Right to Die”. It was compelling television, including an interview with a well-educated MS sufferer, Loredana Alessio-Mulhall who pleaded for the right to die, writes Frank Brennan SJ.

BY Frank Brennan SJ

Quentin Dempster is a very experienced, thoughtful journalist. Last month [November 2011] he produced a story on the ABC’s 7.30 NSW program entitled “The Right to Die”. It was compelling television including an interview with a well-educated MS sufferer, Loredana Alessio-Mulhall who pleaded for the right to die. When asked about the risk to other vulnerable people facing death if euthanasia were to be legalised she said:

“But there’s much more to it than that. My answer to that is what about what’s happening to me now. Maybe this will happen… maybe that will happen. But in (my) case it’s 100 per cent bad… I really believe people who are against it don’t want to hear what I say.”

Dempster also presented the testimony of ABC Insiders “Talking Pictures” presenter, Mike Bowers speaking about his father’s dying days with Alzheimer’s disease. Mike said, “I thought more than once about doing the pillow snuff but no son should have to do that”.

Dempster conducted a fair and thorough interview with Parramatta Bishop Anthony Fisher. He then followed up with an article on the ABC’s Drum website. He portrayed the Catholic Church as the strongest opponent of the right to die. Purporting to represent the Church’s “hard ‘pro-life’ line”, he quoted Pope Benedict:

“Euthanasia is a false solution to the drama of suffering, a solution unworthy of man. The true answer cannot be putting someone to death, however ‘kindly’, but to bear witness to the love that helps us to face pain and agony in a human way. We are certain: No tear, whether it be of those who suffer or those who stand by them, goes unnoticed before God.”

But let’s be fair to Benedict. This quote is not from a speech delivered to a secular group. It is not from a teaching encyclical. It is part of the weekly Angelus reflection offered to pilgrims in St Peter’s Square. It is pastoral and spiritual encouragement offered to the faithful who believe that life is a gift from God, to be taken or ended only by God.

The Catholic position on the preferable law and policy about the right to die is not to be found in an Angelus reflection. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II taught:

“Euthanasia must be distinguished from the decision to forego so-called ‘aggressive medical treatment’, in other words, medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family. In such situations, when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience ‘refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted’.”

The Church provides both spiritual encouragement and moral injunctions to the faithful. Those moral injunctions will be followed by any Catholic health care provider. There is then the question about the appropriate law and policy in a pluralistic democratic society where not everyone voluntarily subscribes to the Catholic moral code or spiritual pathway. Someone like Loredana Alessio-Mulhall may be one of those, and she deserves as much respect for her human dignity as any other person.

The law is always a blunt instrument. It draws lines – creating rights and obligations. Presently our law and the ethical guidelines for doctors and nurses align fairly well with the Catholic moral tradition. If the lines drawn with this blunt instrument are to be redrawn to accommodate Loredana’s right to die how and when she likes, there will always be another Loredana who wants the lines redrawn yet again until we reach the stage that the many Loredanas will be agitating for the right to die whenever and however the individual seeks it.

The most liberal euthanasia regime in the world is the Netherlands. There are many documented cases of vulnerable people being involuntarily put to death under the Netherlands regime. In August the Dutch group “Of Free Will” published a paper, pointing out that the right to die should be available via three routes: the medical route, the autonomous route, and the caregivers route. They lament that the Netherlands law provides for the medical route but not for the caregivers route on which dying assistance could be given to elderly persons who consider their life complete.

Loredana considers her life complete. Mike Bowers thought his Dad’s life complete. Thinking about the pillow snuff, if no son should have to do it, why should any caregiver? Why should any caregiver be allowed to? And why should society legalise it? Even while it remains illegal, it will occur from time to time, and it is very unlikely that any snuffer will be prosecuted if he is a loved one acting in accord with the deceased’s request and not out of self-interest.

Once we start drawing the lines elsewhere with the blunt instrument of the law, vulnerable people will be sure to be put to death without their consent, because others judge that their lives are complete or useless. And the resources for providing dignified last days for those whose lives are all but complete will be more scarce.

Frank Brennan

Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University.

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