A Labor senator’s claim that voluntary assisted dying is “state-sanctioned suicide” is an insult to terminally ill Australians who have accessed the end-of-life option and their families, says the Rationalist Society of Australia.
In a speech to the Senate on the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 this week, Senator Deborah O’Neill (pictured) – a Catholic from New South Wales – said that those who supported the bill wanted to enable “state-sanctioned suicide” in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.
Senator O’Neill – who wanted Labor to boost its appeal among voters from faith communities and sought a bipartisan approach on the Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill – said it was important to put on record a “faith perspective” on the issue of VAD in the territories.
“I think a review of the contributions of those who will support the bill will show that, as much as they declare it is not so, they indeed do know that enabling state-sanctioned suicide in the ACT and the Northern Territory is, in fact, exactly what they are seeking to achieve today,” she told the Senate on Monday.
“To a Catholic, the dignity of a person is fundamental, regardless of what they look like or what they can do, or how old or how infirm they are. That belief in the essence of life is actually what informs a theological position that is opposed to voluntary assisted dying.”
Earlier this year, the RSA welcomed the Albanese government’s commitment to restore the right of the territories to make laws to allow VAD. Debate on the bill is expected to continue when the Senate resumes.
RSA president Dr Meredith Doig condemned Senator O’Neill’s characterisation of VAD as ‘suicide’.
“It’s straight from the playbook of the bishops and it’s simply not true. Australians right across the country know the difference between suicide and voluntary assisted dying. Indeed, most state VAD laws contain clauses intended to clarify that VAD is not suicide,” she said.
“It’s insulting to all those terminally ill Australians who have chosen VAD to end their suffering, and to all of their families and loved ones.”
Public surveys show that most religious Australians and, indeed, the majority of Catholics support VAD laws. In his authoritative Religiosity in Australia series, social researcher Neil Francis noted that religious clergy, such as leaders of the Catholic Church, were out of step with the views of their own flocks.
In the 2019 Australian Election Study, by the Australian National University, 74 per cent of Catholics, 78 per cent of Anglicans, 81 per cent of Uniting/Methodists, and 48 per cent of minor Christian denominations favoured VAD laws. Those opposed to VAD were in a small minority – 15 per cent of Catholics, 12 per cent of Anglicans, 5 per cent of Uniting/Methodists, and 20 per cent of minor Christian denominations.
The RSA is calling on the Albanese government to amend laws to ensure medical practitioners can consult about VAD with patients using telehealth. The Commonwealth Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Act 2005 prevents or severely limits the use of telehealth in relation to VAD.
A number of state agencies charged with administering VAD laws have raised concerns that, under the Act, VAD could be defined as “using a carriage service to counsel or incite committing or attempting to commit suicide”.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Image: Deborah O’Neill (Facebook)