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Upholding the dignity of the suffering

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A young Nicholas Tonti-Filippini: At the time of his death, he was one of Australia’s most respected bioethicists.

In the often heady world of bioethics, Nicholas Tonti-Filippini provided a clear and consistent voice on issues that touched on the dignity of human life.

His bioethics was always practically oriented, no doubt informed by his experience as a clinical bioethicist at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital, the first to hold such a position in Australia.

The accessibility  of his ethics meant that his opinions were widely sought by diverse sectors of our society: by government bodies and the National Health and Medical Research Council, by pontifical councils and bishops’ conferences, or by the media in response to the ethical implications of novel medical therapies. It was also reflected in his teaching, of which I am a beneficiary, in which he would not abide ‘pontificating’ or theoretical discursions by his students, but would demand reasoned argument and a pastoral response to whatever issue was at hand.

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Equally, however, Nicholas did not allow pastoral concerns to weaken his idealism and love for truth. He was firmly convinced of the inviolable dignity of every human person at every stage of his or her life. His anthropology was informed by his Christian faith that afforded him an understanding beyond the narrow confines of scientific positivism and technical skill. Indeed, it was from this solid conviction of certain fundamental truths concerning the human person that Nicholas was able to be so clear and consistent in his views.

But there was something even more persuasive in Nicholas’ approach to bioethics: the authenticity of his witness in the decisions of his own life. And nowhere was this more obvious or convincing than in his struggles with a lifetime of chronic illness.

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Tonti-Filippini family

This gave Nicholas a remarkable insight into the mystery of suffering and provided an eloquent response to the forces in favour of euthanasia. In an honest testimony to his personal experience, he attests that the chronically and terminally ill often struggle to find meaning in life.

Their will to keep on living is tested to the limits by pain, loneliness and fear. Sensitive to their vulnerability, Nicholas feared that legislation allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide would only intensify this sense of meaninglessness and isolation. He deemed it an injustice that undermined the will of the terminally ill to hold onto life, and a dereliction of care for those who most need it. He insisted that dignity of life should never be contingent on an individual’s will to survive, but should be upheld and recognised by a society that cares enough to affirm and support those who have lost faith in the goodness of life.

He was constant in maintaining that the chronically and terminally ill are not helped by the option of euthanasia; that they do not need to be burdened further by implications that their life is not worth living. Rather, they need the reassurance and support of people who truly care; whose love and compassion affirms their dignity and worth; who can offer hope in the midst of doubt and darkness.

“Rather than help to die,” he writes, “the cause of dignity would be more greatly helped if more was done to help people live more fully with the dying process” (About Bioethics [2], 112).

That Nicholas did just that – lived life fully in the midst of suffering – is testimony to the strength of love of his wife Mary and family. But his serenity in the midst of suffering is also witness to his strength of character, his will to live, and his faith in a power greater than his own. Indeed, it is this palpable, lived faith in the grace of Jesus Christ that is Nicholas’ greatest legacy, embracing the gift of life and treasuring the goodness of humanity. And while we are clearly impoverished by the loss of his genius, his witness to the power of faith affords us hope for a world redeemed.

– Rev Dr Paschal Corby is a lecturer in Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne

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