Bishop Fisher and Dr Philip Nitschke in Sydney euthanasia debate

Bishop Fisher and Dr Philip Nitschke in Sydney euthanasia debate

Frank Mobbs

It is a comfort to learn that there is still interest in the morality of killing people. For that is what euthanasia is - killing people. You can safely bet that every time euthanasia is successfully performed there is a corpse.

The moral question reads: Is killing with the intention of preventing pain or other distress justifiable? It formed the topic of a debate which fascinated some 900 listeners in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney on 12 August.

This debate was part of a program of lectures and other activities which went under the name of Life Week, organised by the University's Catholic Chaplaincy, and co-hosted by three other university organisations. The debate lasted one hour and was followed by a second hour of question time, thus testifying to the interest of the audience.

Presenting the case against euthanasia was Father Anthony Fisher, a Dominican friar and bioethics expert, who was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Sydney on 3 September.

The affirmative case was in the hands of Dr Philip Nitschke, well- known euthanasia practitioner and campaigner on behalf of the legalisation of euthanasia.

Fr Fisher spoke first, defining euthanasia as an act intended to shorten life with a supposedly merciful motivation, and proposed to focus on the giving of a lethal injection as the act. Later, Dr Nitschke agreed with this definition.

Fr Fisher remarked that the agenda of Dr Nitschke and his supporters went far beyond the killing of those in extreme pain. Today they advocate killing defective infants, the unconscious, and the non-competent elderly. None of these can consent to their deaths - this being involuntary euthanasia. Further, euthanasiasts want legislation to allow the purchase by depressed teenagers of lethal pills from pharmacies so that they can suicide. "Freedom to choose" and "compassion" are the slogans of the euthanasia camp.

Fr Fisher was not impressed by this talk of compassion: "For all the compassion talk it seems to me very often what this is really about is not putting granny out of her misery but putting her out of our misery."

The experience in the Netherlands, he said, shows that regulation designed to restrict the practice of euthanasia to consenting persons has been ignored with impunity. Moreover, killing becomes routine, so the sick categorise themselves as of no value.

As for a "right to kill", it does not exist in law nor in major human rights documents. Acceptance of euthanasia sends a chilling message to the sick, and the deformed, and the incompetent. "You are expendable", it reads.

Instead of employing euthanasia, said Fr Fisher, we need to provide palliative care, showing the afflicted that they are loved and respected by our caring for them, not by saying, "You would be better off dead."

Opening his case, Dr Nitschke said one can provide palliative care by, for example, increasing the drug dosage at the request of the patient to the point where it brings about death. "My opponents", he said, "justify this by appealing to the Principle of Double Effect". That is suicide and is legal. But change in law is needed because euthanasia is going on all the time. Advances in medicine enable doctors to keep alive people who want to die and who are incapable of killing themselves. They say, "I want control." That is why Exit Australia [euthanasia] clinics are booked out.

"My opponents," he added, "invoke the notion of the sanctity of life, arguing that life is a gift. "What sort of a gift is it if God gives us a life that we can't actually get rid of?" People want to end their lives, yet often they are incapable of even pressing a switch, so a doctor is needed to kill them, legally.

"Legislation for this autonomy is difficult to draft. But it is better to have laws to regulate euthanasia than not, as my experience in the Northern Territory showed. [Nitschke legally put four persons to death there.] That legislation was sabotaged. Who is to blame for this? The Churches are. The trouble with the politicians is that they followed their own consciences rather than those of their electors."

In his response, Fr Fisher said that we have heard that euthanasia is common, so why not legalise it? But lots of things happen no matter what the law provides, yet we do not remove laws because they are broken.

Netherlands experience

The experience of the Netherlands where euthanasia has been legalised for some years, shows that some 6000 people have been killed without their consent. Worse, 80 percent of cases of euthanasia are not even reported to authorities. So much for legal protection of the dying!

Dr Nitschke has complained that the Churches brought about the overturning of the Northern Territory law. But many organisations contributed, including the Australian Medical Association; and aborigines proved outspoken opponents of the legislation.

This matter, he said, goes to the heart of our community values.

Dr Nitschke replied that the law on euthanasia is unjust - "I have said that I will break it; unjust laws should be broken."

It is not true, claimed Nitschke, that the Northern Territory lacks palliative care, nor that aborigines are afraid of legislation authorising euthanasia - such claims are lies and half-lies. In fact, Territorians want their laws back.

I gained the impression that the Catholic Chaplaincy, which organised Life Week, had become a force to be reckoned with on campus, after a quarter of a century of only sputtering organised Catholic activity there. The Chaplaincy today is led by a team of five lay men and women, assisted by priests part-time. Anthony McCarthy, who chaired the debate effortlessly, is a member of the team. He told me that the Chaplaincy had received strong and interested support from Archbishop Pell, who attended.

Transcripts of the debate are available on the internet at, as well as photographs and audio recordings.

Dr Frank Mobbs is a Catholic writer and lecturer based in Gosford, NSW.

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