Andrew Denton has asked people of faith –and Catholics in particular – to get out of the way and allow himself and others to lobby for the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide not only unopposed, but unquestioned.
In a speech at the National Press Club, Mr Denton said: “To those whose beliefs instruct you that only God can decide how a human being should die, I urge you, step aside. May your beliefs sustain you and those you love, but do not impose them on the rest of us.”
His words betray his lack of understanding about the influence of faith in these matters. Catholics oppose assisted suicide not because of a belief about how we should die, but a belief about how we should live.
In suggesting that people of faith “step aside”, Mr Denton is asking for a radical change in the way we think about the human person.
As Catholics we believe that the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, has a dignity which cannot be undermined or taken away. We hold this belief consistently the whole way through a person’s life. Dignity is not dependent on age, which means that it belongs to us from the moment of conception until the moment of death.
It is also not affected by illness or disability, which means it is not dependent on whether you can shower yourself, take yourself to the bathroom or respond to anyone at all. You have dignity even if, as an embryo, you are diagnosed with a severe genetic condition or as an adult, you are diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The Catholic rejection of euthanasia is about more than a “sanctity of life” argument; it is ultimately a message to each and every human person that their dignity is not diminished by sickness or anything else. Human dignity is immune to changing circumstances.
In asking us to step aside, Mr Denton is asking us to abandon more than our opposition to euthanasia, he is asking us to declare that human life is not of intrinsic value. In a culture which increasingly associates productivity with worth, we must be even more steadfast in our affirmation of the inestimable value of each person.
It is not only Mr Denton suggesting that Catholics step aside recently.
An article in The Australian noted that students at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s medical school are required to learn Catholic healthcare ethics as part of their studies.
The curriculum meets the requirements of the Australian Medical Council, so students learn about abortion, contraception, assisted reproductive technologies and other treatments which do not comply with Catholic teaching. But they also learn the teachings of the Catholic Church on these procedures.
Not only was the idea of students in a Catholic university being required to learn about aspects of Catholic teaching which are relevant to their chosen profession considered to be newsworthy, the president of the Australian Medical Association saw fit to comment on the revelation.
Dr Michael Gannon told The Australian that he had “very strong views” on health education. He said it was absolutely essential that Catholic universities teach “sterilisation, contraception, assisted reproduction, [and] about the health needs of homosexual people”.
He might well have said, “Step aside, Catholics.”
Dr Gannon makes the same mistake as Mr Denton. The Church’s rich tradition in bioethics is not based on opposition to a treatment being proposed by the medical profession, but rather our understanding of the human person. Primarily, students learn Catholic bioethics not so they know which procedures are not permitted, but so they understand why we care so much for the sick in the first place.
Those calling on Catholics to “step aside” in matters of health care clearly do not know very much about history.
Before Christianity, it was not common to care for the sick and dying. It was foolish – and not virtuous – to look after the weak. It was Christians who first understood this to be a duty.
Even Wikipedia tells us that “in-patient medical care in the sense of what we today consider a hospital, was an invention driven by Christian mercy”. Catholics have a history of caring for the sick even when it meant putting themselves at risk of infection or even death.
If we were to remove Catholic health care ethics from the provision of health care, the simple fact is that there would be no provision of health care at all.