Final Australian state allows euthanasia and assisted suicide, rejecting religious exemptions

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New South Wales has become the sixth and final Australian state to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. Its legislation forces health care and elder care organizations with religious objections to allow the practice on their premises.

“If a civilization is to be judged by how it treats its weakest members, the New South Wales parliament has failed miserably, and has set a dark and dangerous path for all posterity, determining a new and disturbing definition of what it means to be human.” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said May 19.

“Despite our disappointment, our fight for life does not end with this vote,” he added. He then invoked a phrase of Pope Francis: “We must redouble our efforts to care for those who are victims of the ‘throwaway culture’ and instead rebuild a culture of life and love in this state.”

The Upper House of the New South Wales Parliament voted to approve the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021 by a vote of 23 to 15 on Thursday. It will take effect in about 18 months, according to The Catholic Weekly, a publication of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

The bill allows euthanasia or assisted suicide to Australian citizens who are at least 18 years old. They must have a terminal illness and be expected to die within six months. Those expected to die in twelve months may seek euthanasia or assisted suicide if they have a neurodegenerative condition and experience unbearable suffering. Their application for euthanasia or assisted suicide must be assessed by two medical practitioners and they must be found to be making their decision voluntarily, without duress, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reports.

“The disturbing nature of this legislation is compounded by the way the debate over amendments was conducted,” said Archbishop Fisher. “All amendments put forward by those who would seek to make this deadly regime even a little bit safer were rejected.”

“That no meaningful amendments were accepted speaks to a ‘winner takes all’ approach by the proponents of this bill and reveals an ugliness that has invaded our politics. This does not bode well for the protection of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Objecting religious health care providers had sought the ability to ban euthanasia and assisted suicide from their premises, but the relevant amendments were rejected.

“Catholic health and aged care providers in New South Wales have served their communities with compassion and professionalism for more than a century and will continue to offer high-quality hospital and end of life care despite this poorly designed law,” Brigid Meney, director of strategy and mission at Catholic Health Australia, said May 19.

“However Catholic health and aged care providers are disappointed and saddened by the passing of a law that violates their ethic of care,” she continued. 

“This law will force organizations that do not agree with assisted suicide to allow doctors onto their premises to prescribe and even administer restricted drugs with the intention of terminating a resident’s life – without even informing the facility,” Meney continued. “These laws ignore the rights of staff and residents who may choose to work and live in a particular residential facility because of their opposition to assisted suicide.”

Catholic Health Care Australia, the Anglican health care provider Anglicare, and the Christian aged care provider HammondCare had all strongly campaigned for their faith-based elder care facilities to be exempted from the law, citing freedom of conscience. Conscience protections, however, were defeated in the Upper House by a vote of 23-13.

Greg Donnelly, a Labor Member of the Legislative Council, was among other pro-life lawmakers who had sought to limit the New South Wales legislation through amendments, including conscience protections.

He said it was “utterly repugnant and draconian” to force facilities with moral objections to assisted suicide or euthanasia to allow the practices. Such provisions are “essentially an authoritarian imposition on what are, in our civil society, associations of people coming together for a purpose.”

Other defeated amendments sought to clarify whether a person seeking euthanasia or assisted suicide has decision-making capacity or is “significantly impacted by a mental health impairment.” Failed amendments aimed to provide palliative care or to bar healthcare workers or third parties from initiating discussions about euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Alex Greenwich, an independent MP who had introduced the bill, praised its passage and said “compassion has won.” He called for euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates to focus on the federal parliament to pass laws that would allow Australia’s territories to legislate for euthanasia and assisted suicide, Australia’s ABC News reports.

Australia has six states and ten territories, though the lawmaking abilities of the latter are dependent upon the federal parliament.

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Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected any move to allow euthanasia and assisted suicide legalization in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, by far the two most populated Australian territories, though the Labor party has pledged to make debate on the issue a priority if it wins control of the federal government in the elections set for Saturday.

Bishop Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay lamented the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in New South Wales, calling it “a completely unacceptable solution to the problem of suffering.”

“A genuinely human society is not how we decide to eliminate those who suffer, but how we care for them,” he said. “We should be considering and caring for the rights of all citizens to be well, to have the care they need, and not lost to the margins.”

“Now more than ever we must ensure members of our family, friends, those who are alone, the vulnerable in our community know and understand that they are loved, that we will be with them in their journey, and that they are not a burden,” said Randazzo.

Archbishop Fisher thanked members of parliament who opposed the bill, “often in the face of disdain and disparagement from their parliamentary colleagues, from pro-euthanasia lobby groups and from the media.”

When the New South Wales bill was introduced in late 2021, Fisher vocally criticized it and asked Catholics to speak out. He warned of the prevalence of elder abuse and the “alarming rates of suicide among the vulnerable.”

“As someone who has experienced the pain and humiliation of serious illness, I need you to speak up for life,” he had said. He recounted his severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which paralyzed him from the neck down and put him in terrible pain and total dependency on others for five months.

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Catholic bishops in Australia have repeatedly written in support of palliative care as an alternative to assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s September 2020 letter Samaritanus bonus reaffirmed the Church’s perennial teaching on the sinfulness of euthanasia and assisted suicide. The congregation recalled the obligation of Catholics to accompany the sick and dying through prayer, physical presence, and the sacraments.

In February 2021, an Australian university found that the country has less than half the number of palliative care physicians needed to care for terminally-ill patients.