Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ

During this past week, the lower house of the Western Australian Parliament, the Legislative Assembly, voted to pass the draft legislation which would legalise euthanasia in our State. The draft moves now to the upper house, the Legislative Council.

I acknowledge that those for and against euthanasia share a desire to save people from suffering. Euthanasia is not the only option.
However, if this legislation were to become law in our State, it would have far reaching consequences.

In this Letter, I want to share with you my own experience after serving the Catholic and wider community as a priest for 48 years. In that time, I have cared for numerous dying people and their families. What follows is based upon probably more practical experience than the average Western Australian.

From my experience
First, I have never met a dying person who wanted to end their life because of physical pain. I have met dying people who talked of want to end their lives due to psychological and emotional sufferings such as

  • loneliness and a feeling that no one cares
  • feelings of guilt stemming from family members communicating in different ways that the seriously ill patient should hurry up and die as they are a nuisance
  • the sense that, if they died, their children’s financial problems could be relieved as parents’ assets are inherited
  • a feeling that they are a burden on others
  • a fear of future pain.

Second, there is the reality of elder abuse. Relatives abusing elderly family members will be ’emotionally weaponised’ by the passing of euthanasia legislation. Pressuring the elderly to seek death as a relief from abuse will be easier.

According to the Commonwealth Attorney General’s website, in any given year, between two percent and fourteen percent of our elderly experience elder abuse.

Third, despite the best use of their medical skills, doctors and specialists can be wrong. People I have known who have been told they have a short time to live have recovered fully to live productive lives. Others have lived fulfilled lives for well after times forecast by medical staff.

There is no doubt in my mind that, should the draft euthanasia legislation be passed, there will be people who will die prematurely because of mistaken medical advice.

Fourth, terminally ill people who initially thought of taking their own lives, but did not, have told me later how glad they were that they did not do so. They had not understood how modern medicine could help them, the effect of good pastoral care and how they were enriched as individuals by facing the questions terminal illnesses stir.

Safeguards have not lasted elsewhere
Some would claim that there are safeguards in the draft legislation to go to the Legislative Council, but this is disingenuous. Initial safeguards in other countries have been whittled down over time.

The common pattern is that advocates argue for euthanasia for extreme cases. Then, once legalised, as social tolerance grows, safeguards gradually are legislated away.

Today, children can seek euthanasia in Belgium; a quarter of the deaths in the Netherlands in 2017 were the result of euthanasia legislation. There are other examples. It is naive to imagine that Western Australian safeguards will remain.

Parliament the authority on life and death?
The legislation of euthanasia will be a claim by the Parliament to be the ultimate authority in principle to decide the conditions in which someone can be killed – either by their own hand using means given them by others, or by the hand of another.

Once it is accepted that Parliament can legislate to permit the killing of a human being, it is easy to see this happening in other circumstances. It is a question of the direction of public opinion which can be manipulated so easily by media.

Palliative care
The aim of palliative care is that the seriously ill live as well as possible for the rest of their lives. It is not concerned just with dying.

This means that palliative care should be sought when a terminal illness has been diagnosed – not as dying begins. In my personal experience, palliative care has been successful if started soon enough and provided by a suitably qualified practitioner.

I ask parishioners to do two things.

First, I ask that you all pray, especially for members of the Legislative Council over coming weeks as the legislation of euthanasia is considered. As I have said, we are all united in our desire to relieve the dying of suffering – we disagree about how to achieve this.

Good palliative care is the option which not only will relieve suffering but also not encourage abusers of the elderly. Nor will it set the precedent that Parliament can decide conditions when people can be killed.

Second, I ask that we all consider the quality of our support for the sick and terminally ill. They need our love and support, as well as our affirmation of their value and dignity as human persons.

God bless you all

Most Rev Gerard J Holohan
Bishop of Bun bury
27 Sept 2019