A national Catholic medical association conference has been a shot in the arm for doctors and other health professionals facing the introduction of voluntary assisted dying in New South Wales this month.
Assisted suicide and euthanasia will be legal in every Australian state from 28 November and the conference run by the Australian Catholic Medical Association helped like-minded delegates “feel like they are not alone,” in their concerns about the effects on vulnerable patients, the medical profession and the broader community, said organiser Mike McHugh.
“It was a real boost to all of us and I think the penny has dropped that we really do need to support each other in building a stronger Catholic medical community,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
“Our association has been around for a while now but after the weekend there was a real buzz as many more people now know where to find each other for help and resources and just to bounce ideas off each other.
“That they may have life” was the theme of the inaugural national conference held at St Joseph’s conference and retreat centre in Baulkham Hills from 10-12 November.
More than 80 healthcare professionals from around the country met for prayer and mutual support with presentations delivered by experts including Australian Catholic University bioethicist Dr Xavier Symons—recently appointed head of the Plunkett Centre for Bioethics—ACMA chaplain Fr Pascal Corby, historian Dr Elisabeth Taylor, palliative medicine doctor and Sydney University associate professor Maria Cigolini and Parramatta deacon and retired GP Michael Tan.
The bulk of the proceedings were on Saturday, beginning with Dr Symons, who said clearer protections are needed for conscientious objections.
He offered advice on what to do if a doctor or other health profession has an objection to abortion, euthanasia or other procedure allowed by law that conflicts with their conscience.
“Part of the upshot of providing a broader role of conscience in medicine is that it’s not just about controversial medical procedures—you are always making conscientious judgements in medicine,” he told attendees.
“In that way just as any other doctor would want their discretionary space respected with regard to end of life care or the advisability of any treatment measurements, so should you have your rights respected.
“I think it’s important we don’t buy into this trap of making conscientious objection somehow a special plead [for Christians] in medicine.”
The conference dinner keynote was delivered by pro-life advocate Dr Joanna Howe who spoke powerfully about the tragedy of abortion and urged participants to work together to push for legal protections for unborn children across Australia.
McHugh said all were “relieved” to receive input and be able to discuss pressing practical and philosophical questions around medical conscientious objection, technology and transhumanism, youth transgenderism, abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide across the weekend.
A highlight was the first “White Mass” celebrated by Sydney Bishop Richard Umbers and concelebrated by Tasmanian Archbishop Julian Porteous, where all present received a blessing of hands for their ministry to the sick and the dying.
Organiser Dr Deirde Little said the conference was inspired by the need for Catholic doctors and others with ethical concerns about changes to current medical practice to consider ways to remain focussed on the good of individuals in their care.
“We needed to come together to discuss how do we properly consider each person we come across rather than aggregating our responsibility to government agencies or legislators who would tell us how to manage a patient, what medicine to use and how to discuss things with a patient,” she said.
“For example, modern advanced care directives that are government-issued in local health districts encourage a tick-a-box style of medicine where a lay person may tick boxes on a person’s future decisions in an unforeseeable context.
“Now we who are a bit older can see the pitfalls of that one-size-fits-all kind of medicine which we feel is not necessarily in the best interests of patients and may have an ideological grounding which is not in accord with Christian or Catholic principals.
“So we need look together at what kinds of harms it can do and what can we do to prevent them.”
The Australian Catholic Medical Association is the national peak body for Catholic healthcare professionals, replacing the former state-based Guild of St Luke, and is approved by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.