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Life after VAD – Church teaching reaffirmed


As South Australia becomes the fourth state in the country to legalise euthanasia, two Catholic archbishops have spoken of the experience of losing their mothers to reaffirm the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life.

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The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill introduced to the SA Legislative Council by Labor MLC Kyam Maher and guided through the House of Assembly by Deputy Opposition leader Susan Close was passed 33-11 after a lengthy debate on June 9. It returned to the Upper House where it was passed with a minor amendment on June 24.

It will now go to the Governor for assent before the legislation will come into effect, making SA the fourth state in the country to legalise voluntary euthanasia, behind Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania.

Under the legislation, aged care homes and retirement villages run by religious organisations will not be able to prevent residents from accessing VAD but institutional conscientious objection will apply to faith-based hospitals such as Calvary.

In a video interview with The Advertiser prior to the bill’s passage through the Lower House, Archbishop Patrick O’Regan said that “while we believe in the democratic process, the best decisions are made when we do the right thing for the right reason”.

He said he had heard many “horror stories” of loved ones dying during the debate but his experience of being a priest for nearly 40 years was very different and he had seen “what can go right when we invest in good care of the dying”.

“So our concerns are that we are not actually addressing the difficulties, we’re trying to provide a solution to what seems to be a problem. I don’t think the bill actually addresses that,” he said.

“I have experienced it with my own mother; it (palliative care) can be done beautifully and wonderfully, with great compassion and care for the human being…the position we have is that we always believe in the dignity of each human being.”

The Archbishop said his mother had been cared for in the home where she lived for 60 years, and he was able to experience “a wonderful quality time with my dear mother that I would never have had…properly saying goodbye and accompanying her on that journey”.

“So I think we really need to boost good palliative care because it can make a difference. It’s very good at pain relief, it’s very good at assisting people who are fearful. It’s not just the medical care, it’s this whole notion of accompaniment.”

The VAD Scheme has been in operation in Victoria for two years and on July 1 similar legislation was enacted in Western Australia, prompting Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB to write a pastoral letter reaffirming the Catholic Church’s position against euthanasia.

He said it had been the Church’s constant teaching for the past 2000 years that no-one has the right to “step in” and bring to an end a life that has begun under God’s providence and will come to its end under God’s providence.

“We also believe, precisely because life is precious and sacred, that it is to be respected at every moment: when the child is still in its mother’s womb, when it grows to be an infant, then a young child, then an adolescent and an adult.”

Accepting that for many supporters of VAD it was their own experience of the death of a loved one which had led them to that position, Archbishop Costelloe said he was not blind to the complexity of the matter.

“But I, too, have experienced the death of loved ones and have sat at the bedside of the dying, including my mother. It can be an agonising experience to sit helplessly watch-ing someone you love die of a painful disease. In the end, it was my faith that sustained me, just as it was the faith and hope of my mother which carried her through those last difficult days. Had mum’s death been hastened in any way she would have been deprived of knowing of the safe delivery of her one and only grandchild. She died half an hour after I whispered in her ear that the baby had been safely born. I remain profoundly grateful for that,” he wrote.

“I invite you all to join with me in prayer for those whose life experience has brought them to a point where accessing VAD seems the only option open to them; for those who will be called to uphold in our institutions the beauty and hope of the Catholic understanding of the dignity of life; and for our Catholic community, that we can continue to create and foster communities of faith, of hope, of mutual support and fidelity, and of love and compassion. This is our best response to the challenge which lies ahead of us.”

Jim Birch, chair of the Little Company of Mary Health Care, which operates Calvary hospitals, aged care and home care services in SA, said Calvary did not support VAD and he was “saddened” the bill had passed the Lower House in SA.

But he said the amendments by Liberal MP Steve Murray to protect the rights of institutions to conscientious objection was a “landmark recognition of the importance of this principle in Australian law”.

“The recognition of institutional conscientious objection means that Calvary can continue to serve the people of South Australia in that we will be able to offer high quality hospital and end of life care to our patients and clients without being compromised by VAD,” he said.

“In all of our hospitals and aged care facilities, the people we care for and the people who provide care know our services will not offer VAD. We know that people will continue to seek out our services because of this ethic and our ongoing commitment to compassionate care.”

Those MPs who voted against the bill were: Dan Cregan, Kavel (Lib); Tom Koutsantonis, West Torrens (ALP); Adrian Pederick, Hammond (Lib); Vincent Tarzia, Hartley (Lib); Sam Duluk, Waite (Ind); Andrea Michaels, Enfield (ALP); Tony Piccolo, Light (ALP); Dan van Holst Pellekaan, Stuart (Lib); Stephan Knoll, Schubert (Lib); Steve Murray, Davenport (Lib), and  David Speirs, Black (Lib).


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