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Discussing a good death with Philip Nitschke

  • 24 February 2014

I speak at a writers festival about once a year. These festivals are always good fun, inspiring and mind-expanding. Last weekend I participated in a panel discussion at Perth Writers' Festival on 'A good death'. A panel of four members was deftly facilitated by Anne Summers, asking 'What is to be gained if assisted suicide is legalised? What stands to be lost? Does society need a better approach to dying?' I was the token 'religious' person on the panel, and the only one to express satisfaction with the status quo of Australian law which presently bans physician-assisted suicide and physician administered death. Predictably the audience was pro-euthanasia.

I was able to mix with other writers bemoaning Australia's refugee policy including the confusion and obfuscation about the death of an asylum seeker on Manus Island and Julie Bishop's latest diplomatic initiative asking Hun Sen to accept refugees from Australia for permanent resettlement in Cambodia. I came away wondering how passionate refugee advocates could be so sanguine about physician assisted suicide and doctor administered death even for children.

No doubt many of the audience wondered how I could be a refugee advocate while not extending the right of self-determination to any person wanting assistance to end their life, at a time of their choosing, in a manner of their choosing, and in the company of their choosing.

Despite my insistence on distinguishing personal moral beliefs, voluntarily embraced and espoused, from laws and policies imposed with sanctions on all citizens, I suspect many thought my views on appropriate laws and policies governing death and dying were really predetermined by my Catholic moral upbringing. I did point out that the 85-year-old Hans Kung, a leading Catholic theologian who is increasingly incapacitated with Parkinson's Disease and macular degeneration, has written in the third volume of his autobiography: 'I don't want to go on existing as a shadow of myself. Human beings have a right to die when they see no hope of continuing to live according to their very own understanding of how to go on living in a humane way.'

After the session, a couple of writers expressed bewilderment how Tony Abbott and his fellow Jesuit alumni could espouse their refugee policy and still profess their Catholic faith. Law and religion, politics and policy are always a complex mix.

Dr Philip Nitschke was on the panel promoting his autobiography Damned if I Do. He spoke with some ambivalence about the