Two views on Voluntary Assisted Dying and the Church

Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Act came into effect on 19 June. This law provides a framework for people who are dying and suffering to take a medication prescribed by a doctor that will bring about their death at a time they choose.

It will not be mandatory for healthcare practitioners or for health and aged care institutions to participate.

In July, Synod members will consider proposals regarding the Church’s response to the legislation. The key questions are:

1) Will it be permissible for a patient, resident or client of UCA agencies and Epworth HealthCare to access VAD while living in and/or receiving care
and/or services from these organisations?

2) How will the Church in Victoria respond to individuals (and their families) who are exploring
or accessing VAD?

Importantly, Synod will not be asked to debate the particulars of the legislation. Rather, Synod members will be encouraged to reflect on and discuss the theological, pastoral and policy considerations.

Here are two contrasting views on the subject.

FOR

Tutu and the two pills
By Kenneth Ralph

The ebullient much-loved Desmond Tutu, Bishop of Durham, has done a U-turn on voluntary assisted dying. Reversing his lifelong opposition to it, he has become a full-on believer.

Now in his 80s, he recognises that he is “closer to the departure hall than the arrival” and now believes that alongside the “wonderful palliative care that exists” dying people’s choices “should include a dignified assisted death”.

Voluntary assisted dying (VAD), which is currently practised in most western democracies, became available in Victoria on 19 June.

Those who are eligible are able to hasten their death when “suffering from a serious and incurable condition which is causing enduring and unreasonable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the patient deems tolerable”.

Fantastic, say most Victorians.  This is a beautiful piece of long overdue humane social policy. For over 50 years, at least 70 per cent of Australians, religious and secular, have declared themselves in favour of VAD.

So which way will the UCA go? My view is that the Church should say a ‘yes’ to those under its umbrella. It is not in UCA bones, its history, its ethos, to do a condemnatory ‘no’. I believe it will embrace an open-door policy, but leave room to opt out. 

Here is why I believe the Synod should and will support VAD within UCA facilities.

It is in keeping with the general position of the Victorian Synod on medico-ethical matters. That ethic is compassionate, tolerant, moderate, and slightly tilted to the progressive.

In other words, Synod is doing its best to follow the person-oriented morality of Jesus of Nazareth.  Synod’s bio-ethics committee of earlier times declared IVF and abortion as acceptable to a Christian conscience.

By general agreement the Synod has taken the same affirming position on divorce, remarriage, and contraception. The same with same-gender marriage.

More UCA members favour VAD than oppose it.  Surely the Church will pay a big price if it says to them: “Sorry, you will have to go somewhere else.  We don’t believe in it.”

If we have birth control why not death control? Desmond Tutu writes that terminally ill people “should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth”. Numerous ethicists and theologians around the world agree. 

Some terminal suffering cannot be relieved by best practice palliative care. James Gustafson, Chicago Professor of Divinity, writes that “in the face of unrelievable and unbearable suffering”, the hastening of death “may be a reasonable choice”.

Finally if Synod says yes and allows VAD it will not be pushing anything on anyone.  No one is obliged to take up that little pill and swallow it. But all should be free to.

So, there it is. The story of two pills. One pill determined when we arrived.  The other pill can govern when we leave. Surely no beneficent deity in any universe would be against such a marvellous, self-respecting, rational and beautiful way to do things.

Kenneth Ralph is a Geelong therapist, author, and retired UCA minister.

AGAINST

Contrary to Christianity
By Andrew Gador-Whyte

As Synod considers its response to the legislation, I believe that the Church needs to present a clear opposition to Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) as contrary to Christian belief and practice.

I was baptised and grew up in the Uniting Church and work as a doctor in Melbourne’s public hospital system. 

VAD is irreconcilable with Christian practice towards those with illness or disability.

To oppose VAD is not to turn away from those suffering. Rather it is to claim that God, whose ordinary way is to work through human relationships, can be trusted to make the whole of our life a place where Christ is at work.

I understand the wish of many with terminal conditions to be freed from living with relentless suffering, and that they view death as a release.

But VAD denies what Christians believe, that there is no part of life where God abandons us, and there is no part of life beyond the working of God’s grace.

It is very understandable that people want to take control in times of seeming utter loss of control, when someone’s sense of dignity, self and self-efficacy is so profoundly harmed by progressive disease.

But for the Church, there must always be the possibility of being present to one another and of manifesting the presence of Jesus Christ.

I acknowledge the desire of many for a more dignified death, perhaps contrasted with the pain and over-medicalisation they have witnessed. But I cannot see how VAD can be compatible with a defence of the dignity of those who are dependent on others.

This is particularly the case in Western culture, where older people are devalued, while independence and autonomy are represented as the highest goods. It is difficult to see how VAD could be a safe practice in this kind of culture.

It falls to the Church to sustain a collective memory about human inter-dependence, and to unmask the fiction that we can subsist in the world without absolute dependence on one another.

The Church must tell every generation the truth proclaimed by the birth in Bethlehem, that life is God’s giving, and that every human face is a gift to us, and the loss of any one diminishes the world.

Christians need to model a common life that clothes with greatest honour those who are weakest and most dependent; a life marked by presence to one another in pain and alienation; that sustains hope in the resurrection of the body and in the presence of the risen Christ in the heart of human existence.

I believe the church as a whole must oppose VAD, not by isolating ourselves from the culture that has created it, but rather in a way that works towards the restoration of mutual trust and a recognition of mutual dependence.

Andrew Gador-Whyte is a member of Congregation of Mark the Evangelist Uniting Church.       

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