Ministering to euthanasia patients


Euthanasia and assisted suicide are now legal in all Australian States.

In each State, however, there are conditions and restrictions. Advocates for euthanasia are currently calling for a review of some of these restrictions.

There has been, for instance, a call that advice on euthanasia and assisted suicide should be available via telehealth.

It should not be restricted to a personal face-to-face interview with a doctor.

It is argued that regional patients in particular are disadvantaged by the current restrictions. Although a recent Federal Court judgement (Justice Abraham: 30 November, 2023) rejected such a submission, it is inevitable that a variation of the original submission will be drafted and re-submitted in the near future.

There is also lobbying that doctors and health care professionals should be permitted to initiate discussions on euthanasia with patients rather than being restricted only to answering patient-initiated enquiries.

It is not surprising, then, that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should have responded to these further attempts to make euthanasia more accessible, firstly by restating the Church’s strong opposition to euthanasia and all forms of assisted suicide, and, then addressing some of the emerging issues that may arise specifically for Catholics in this end-of-life context.

The bishops’ document: To Witness and Accompany with Christian Hope, (27 November, 2023), draws directly on a previous Vatican Letter, Samaritanus Bonus (14 July, 2020), which in turn draws on the Encyclical Letters of Pope John Paul II Veritatis Splendor (6 August, 1993), and Evangelium Vitae (25 March, 1995).

The Australian bishops also acknowledge, as a source, parallel documents drafted by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference.

The Vatican Letter, Samaritanus Bonus, begins by rehearsing the traditional Catholic arguments against euthanasia and assisted suicide, in specific, the dignity and inviolability of human life and the adverse social effects of compromising this basic human value.

It then goes on to distinguish euthanasia from what is morally permissible, namely, foregoing needlessly aggressive and futile treatments in the terminal stages of life.

It insists, however, that basic nutrition, hydration, nursing and health care must always be maintained unless their administration, too, becomes unduly burdensome.

The Letter then adverts to the specific case of infants born disabled with severely limited life prospects.

Even though their situation is irredeemably parlous, this does not disqualify them from being treated under the same principles already outlined for terminally ill adults.

This very specific section of the Letter dealing with disabled infants with limited life prospects is particularly pertinent in view of the number of cases that have recently been brought to the attention of the Vatican.

There is a parallel section, too, insisting that the general principles apply also to those in a vegetative state and in a state of minimal consciousness, while recognizing, of course, that what constitutes overly aggressive or futile treatments in such situations is both specific to the patient and variable in view of their condition.

Samaritanus Bonus then openly canvasses the use of strong analgesics to combat pain.

Even though the use of such analgesics may result in terminal unconsciousness, it is permissible, provided that the intention is to alleviate pain and any resultant hastening of death, while possibly foreseen, is not intended.

Indeed, the administration of such analgesics, as with palliative care in general, may extend, rather than hasten, death.

The importance of family and hospice support, the rights of health care workers and the respect that must be accorded to their conscientious objections to euthanasia and assisted suicide, the importance of palliative care as an alternative to euthanasia – all these are treated extensively within the parameters of the Catholic tradition in the Vatican Letter. Continue reading

  • Bill Uren SJ AO is a Jesuit Priest, Scholar in Residence at Newman College at the University of Melbourne. He has lectured in moral philosophy and bioethics at the Universities of Melbourne, Murdoch and Queensland, and has served on over a dozen clinical and research ethics committees in universities, hospitals and research institutes.
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