In the last edition of Revive, we printed an opinion piece submitted by Rev Ken Devereux, Uniting Church Chaplain at Royal Perth Hospital, supporting the drafting of a Parliamentary bill for Voluntary Assisted Dying. Premier Mark McGowan introduced a Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill to the Parliament in August this year.
This edition, Prof Brian Hill, member at Billabong Uniting Church, responds to the current conversation.
My elderly aunt’s recent history of strokes and collapses had left her seriously and irreversibly disabled, despite the best palliative care. She was unable to speak and near death, but still aware of her situation. She decided to resist being fed. It was only a matter of time.
My wife, a chaplain, held her hand and spoke biblical reassurances which she knew my aunt would cherish. Then, with a deep last breath, my aunt died.
Should the medical professions have tried to use heroic strategies to keep her going? Was her own resolute refusal to eat or drink an act of suicide?
The current debate about Voluntary Assisted Dying requires that the patient be able to understand their condition and request assistance in ending their life. In my aunt’s case, she was thankful for sedation, but refused further intervention in order to ‘let nature take its course’.
The WA Report on End of Life Choices (2018) has noted that ‘terminal sedation’, ie honouring a terminally ill patient’s refusal to eat, is generally legal in Australia. By contrast, the intent in Voluntary Assisted Dying, is to allow intervention, subject to tight medical regulation, in the form of supplying a chemical kit to help someone to terminate their own life.
This form of euthanasia, where others provide the means, is sometimes justified as an act of love, but it is at the cost of weakening belief in the sanctity of all human life and suggesting use of euthanasia in less justifiable circumstances. Humanist philosopher, Peter Singer, for example, is open to culling out disabled humans at either end of life.
There are sharp differences of opinion in these matters. Meanwhile, it is highly probable that voluntary assisted dying will now pass into WA law, trusting in the medical professions to act ethically. But what is ethical?
Ultimately, a person’s ethics derive from their personal view of the worth and destiny of human beings. Christians expect personal transformation after physical death, depending on how they have responded to the God of creation in this life. This biblical belief should colour all our decisions in this life. I believe it rules out human euthanasia, but I recognise that some readers may think differently.
In any case, whatever our personal view of human worth and destiny, we owe it to our loved ones or carers to let them know how we wish to be treated as we near the end of our own lives. If you are currently a senior (like me), or seriously unwell, now is the time for you and your doctor to jointly fill in and sign an ‘Advanced Health Care Directive’ (WA Health Dept), preferably after talking it through with your family or carer.
The WA Report refers to the need to identify who is “the lawful substitute decision-maker”, in case you are later unable to speak for yourself. Committed as I am to a biblical understanding of the way of Christ, I’ve been drafting (and not before time!) my own directive in a way consistent with my beliefs. Here’s part of it.
“I do not fear death. If I suffer an aggravated health crisis which reduces me to a condition such that I’m unable to communicate with even my family members, and medical consultants deem my condition irreversible and ultimately terminal, I consent to sedation if necessary to minimise serious pain or extreme distress, but I do not consent to being force-fed or subjected to any heroic intervention designed to maintain/restart heart functions or keep me ‘alive’ in this state.”
What do you think? I welcome your comments or advice.
Read Rev Ken Devereux’s article, ‘Life is sacred, be it short or long’, here.
The Uniting Church QLD has prepared a consultation paper to assist the Synod regarding its position on Voluntary Assisted Dying. Read the paper here.
The Uniting Church Vic Tas agreed at their recent Synod meeting to give permission “to the relevant UCA institutions and associated hospital group within Victoria, to make voluntary assisted dying allowable for their patients, clients and residents, under the specific conditions of the legislation.” Read a Pastoral Letter from their Moderator, Rev Denise Liersh, here.