The four Latin rite ordinaries in Victoria have written a pastoral letter denouncing the state's “new, and deeply troubling chapter of health care,” as voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide became legal Wednesday.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 took effect June 19.
In a June 14 letter, the bishops of Melbourne, Ballarat, Sale, and Sandhurst wrote that “We cannot cooperate with the facilitation of suicide, even when it seems motivated by empathy or kindness.”
“What is being referred to as ‘VAD’ is a combination of what in plain- speaking is more commonly known as physician assisted suicide and euthanasia,” they noted.
“We feel a responsibility not just to say ‘no’ to VAD, but to give every encouragement to model a way of life that renders VAD unnecessary.”
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 allows adult Victoria residents who are terminally ill, expected to die within six months (or 12 if they have a neurodegenerative condition), and mentally competent, to ask their doctor to prescribe drugs that will end their lives.
Two doctors must verify the requester's eligibility, and the person must make three requests for assisted suicide or euthanasia. Those seeking to end their lives must have lived in Victoria for at least a year, and be an Australian citizen or permanent resident.
According to The Age, a Melbourne daily, pharmacists at The Alfred Hospital will prepare and supply the mixture of drugs. They will deliver to the terminally ill the dose of about 100mL of liquid in a locked box with a key.
The box will include instructions on how to mix and drink the drugs, “and there is no expiry date on when the drugs can be consumed,” The Age reported.
Physicians will be allowed to administer the drugs via an intravenous drip to those incapable of swallowing.
Health practitioners are granted conscientious objection rights against participation in euthanasia or assisted suicide under the law.
About 100 doctors across the nearly 92,000 square mile state “have began receiving the mandatory training required to be allowed to assist terminally ill patients who need medical help to die,” according to The Age.
A review board of 13 medical and legal experts will review assisted suicide-euthanasia applications after the fact to ensure compliance with the law. The board will also be able to recommend improvements to the state government, and refer breaches to police, coroners, or the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
The bishops said the legislation has been inappropriately labeled as a compassionate response to terminal illness. They pointed to Pope Francis, who has characterized euthanasia as a feature of a “throw-away culture.”
“Francis calls us to follow Christ by accompanying people with compassion, sharing hope not fear. In Victoria, we have entered a moment in which we are called to join this task,” they said.
“We object to the unnecessary taking of a human life; we object to the diminishment of the love that can be given and received in the last days of our loved ones; we object to the lack of adequate funding for excellent palliative care; we object to state-sponsored practices that facilitate suicide; and most of all we object to the lazy idea that the best response our community can offer a person in acute suffering is to end their life.”
The bishops said that Catholics should accompany those dying, providing them with love and friendship until the last moment of their life. They encouraged Victoria’s Christian community to engage the law with prayer and dialogue.
“We are called to engage with our Victorian communities with friendship and wisdom, not motivated by fear,” they said. “We will not abandon those we love, and we believe they have a right to be loved from the beginning to the end of their life.”
They pointed to the examples of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla and Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, who bore witness to the value of the human person “despite great personal cost.”
The bishops also applauded the efforts of Catholic hospitals.
“Catholic hospitals and Catholic residential care organizations have shown great courage. They have united to find ways to model excellent care for their patients, and are committed to resisting calls to involve themselves in VAD,” they said.
“Please learn about their thoughtful and considered response to VAD, which is framed through their enduring commitment to excellence in end of life care, and show them your support.”
Victoria Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, of the Australian Labor Party, expects the number of persons seeking assisted suicide or euthanasia to be low initially, and increase in later years.
“We anticipate that once the scheme has been in place for some time, we’ll see between 100 and 150 patients access this scheme every year,” Mikakos told the ABC.
“In the first year, we do expect the number to be quite modest — maybe only as low as a dozen people,” she added.
According to The Australian, pro-life supporters held a vigil outside Parliament House in Melbourne June 18.
Denise Cameron, president of Pro-life Victoria, said the law is still widely opposed by those in the medical field.
“The Andrews government has set in motion a regime which will legitimize suicide for our most vulnerable community members, devalue palliative care and pressure doctors into abandoning their medical ethic of first do no harm,” she said.
While the bill was being considered in 2017, Bishop Peter Stasiuk of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Saints Peter and Paul of Melbourne said support of euthanasia and assisted suicide is “motivated by a false sense of compassion.” He wrote in a pastoral letter that “Endorsing suicide as a solution to pain or suffering sends the wrong message, especially to the young. Suicide is a tragedy for the person who takes their own life, but it also seriously affects their family and community. It would be morally corrupt to legally endorse any form of suicide.”
The assisted suicide and euthanasia law has been opposed not only by Catholics, but by leaders of the Greek and Coptic Orthodox Churches, as well as Anglicans and Lutherans.
Advocates for assisted suicide and euthanasia have said the eligibility requirements are too onerous, and intend to challenge them in court, but do hope other Australian states will follow Victoria's lead.
Queensland and Western Australia are considering similar bills.
New South Wales rejected such a bill in 2017, as did the national parliament in 2016, and that of Tasmania in 2013.
Australia's Northern Territory legalized assisted suicide in 1995, but the national parliament overturned the law two years later.