Last week, I listened to an interesting discussion on euthanasia on a Melbourne radio station. The host interviewed a Christian minister who, of course, was anti-euthanasia. And so I decided to make this subject a discussion point on social media. Here’s what I wrote:
“Once again the Church speaks out against. While I acknowledge that this is a complex and emotive issue, I’m wondering when the church will learn to engage on ethical issues in a way that expresses God’s love and care for people. Right now in Victoria one person a week, on average, takes their life rather than face an agonising death. The Church’s “against” stand on this and other ethical issues does not engage people with where they find themselves and what they face. Christians need to express God’s compassion for people rather than make black and white statements from a distance. Have you sat with someone as they’ve died in agony? Have you walked with a person with a terminal illness? Have you comforted family and friends who are devastated from helplessly watching their loved one suffer? We need to leave our ivory towers and do life with people who God loves and for whom Jesus gave His life. That sort of Christianity attracts people. The other sort repels.”
As always I invited discussion and what followed was a generally respectful dialogue. But one person wrote, “I am suprised [sic] to hear this from u Rob, I have had many of my family and friends that I had to sit by and watch [sic] them suffer, and thankful for any comfort they could get, but i also know the God numbered our days and its not up to us to end them when we feel like it!” I responded, “It’s a discussion. Nothing to be surprised about. These things need to be talked about in a respectful and compassionate way.”
Christian people should not shy away from the tough debates and neither should we automatically be “against” everything – although that sadly seems to be the expectation from many in the church these days. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold strong views but we need to learn to engage with others and listen to why their opinion differs from ours. Along the way maybe we’ll learn something rather than being self-righteously opinionated.
The euthanasia debate has surfaced again recently because of a 350 page report handed down to the Victorian State Parliament. The report recommends that euthanasia only be made legal for terminally ill patients over the age of 18, enduring pain and suffering in the last weeks or months of their natural life. A number of other safeguards would also be put in place if legislation were eventually passed. This process is likely to take about two years and there’s no guarantee that current laws will be changed.
Last year Christie and I filmed an episode of our TV program The Exchange on the euthanasia debate called The Right to Die. Originally we were to have two guests both of whom had terminal illnesses: Peter Short and Nicholas Tonti-Filippini. Unfortunately Nicholas had to withdraw from the program at the last minute, as he was too ill. He passed away a few days later. In his place Margaret Tighe, the president of the Right to Life Australia, agreed to take part in the discussion.
Nicholas Tonti-Filippini had battled a chronic autoimmune disease from the age of 20. He lived until the age of 56. Professor Tonti-Filippini was staunch in his opposition to voluntary euthanasia. He said, “Euthanasia would be a disaster for people like me. I’m dependent on dialysis … I’m well advanced with a terminal condition. If euthanasia was allowed it would put pressure on people in my situation to take that option. So anybody who was terminally ill – anybody who was suffering – they would be under a kind of pressure because the doctors would have to tell them that this was an option, so it would undermine the whole relationship between them and their doctor. At the moment, the doctors and nurses I see encourage me to keep going with the dialysis. But if they happen to turn around and say that at this stage of your life you could opt for euthanasia, it would completely undermine the relationship.” (The Age)
Peter Short was an amazing man and we enjoyed good conversation both on and off set. Peter had successfully battled oesophageal cancer in his early 50s but, on 28 January 2014, his 57th birthday, he was told it had returned – terminally. Peter campaigned for euthanasia but in the end he opted for palliative care. He died on 29 December, 2014.
There are many “fors” and “againsts” in the euthanasia debate and I encourage you to read widely on the subject if you’re interested in knowing more. I guess a great question for all of us to ask is whether ethics are issues or people? If ethics are just issues then we are free to make black and white statements such as, “I’m against euthanasia.” But if ethics go way beyond issues and actually affect people – which they do – then we need to engage with the people who are affected, get to know them and listen to their stories. When we do this we will find that there are many shades of grey and, more importantly, our hearts will be filled with empathy, compassion and love for those who are suffering – and that sounds very much like Jesus to me.