ANTHONY HOGAN. Religion and the question of voluntary assisted suicide.

Jun 11, 2018

Across Australia, various jurisdictions are beginning to address the question of whether or not to legalise voluntary assisted suicide for people who are terminally and extremely ill. By 2019, legislation approved in Victoria will come into effect while legislation previously approved in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory was overturned by the so-called Andrew’s Bill.Media reports covering the passing of the Victorian legislation represented the debates around the issue as being highly emotional and very contentious. Several issues seem to be at play here.

Certainly, the depth of pain experienced when losing a loved one is rarely matched by much else that can happen to us in life. Yet despite the evident distress that surrounds such moments, population surveys continually suggest that large majorities of the population agree with the proposal that people, who are terminally and extremely ill, should be offered the option of voluntary assisted suicide as a treatment solution. Off-setting this position have been the publicly stated views put forward by leaders of key religious institutions. The current inquiry into this issue in the ACT, for example, recently heard that making available voluntary assisted suicide as a treatment solution for people who are terminally and extremely ill, was ill-considered and devalued human life.

As a social researcher I was perplexed by this evident contradiction in the given positions. Just as in the case of same-sex marriage, it seemed mathematically impossible that a large majority of the population could simultaneously support and oppose the same piece of legislation. As such, a study of where people stood on the issue of voluntary assisted, suicide for people who are terminally and extremely ill, taking into account peoples’ religious views and institutional affiliation, was indicated. The opportunity to collect such data arose through the public contribution of the market research company which regularly conducts quarterly omnibus surveys on two key populations, people aged over 50 years (a.k.a. Boomers) and 18–35 year olds (a.k.a. Millennials).  Questions concerning peoples’ views on this issue were in turn surveyed as part of nationally representative studies. 

These studies found that as a whole some two-thirds (65%) of Boomers and 58% of Millennials support the legalization of euthanasia. There was, however, a high level of uncertainty in the community around this issue. The data on this issue was in turn examined within the context of religious belief or religious affiliation. Approximately one third of respondents reported a formal religious affiliation.  Of those with a religious affiliation, 48% of Boomers and 39% of Millennials supported the legalization of euthanasia. Again, for both groups, uncertainty remained an issue with some while a further 28% of Boomers and 40% of Millennials reporting uncertainty or neutrality on these issues. Interestingly, a strong majority of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church members supported the legalization of euthanasia while members of smaller Christian denominations opposed the legalization of euthanasia. 

Further analysis of the data found that peoples’ positions of the legalization of euthanasia shifted with regards the context within which such a procedure may be offered. The more clearly the context under consideration was defined (e.g. euthanasia offered as a solution to people who have a terminal condition or extreme physical illness; enables a person to die with dignity) the greater was the level of support from community. For example, when the question was clearly contextualized (e.g. as voluntary assisted, suicide for people who are terminally and extremely ill), it was likely that some 90% of Boomers and 70% of Millennials would support the legalization of euthanasia.

While people with a specific religious affiliation make up approximately one third of the community, this cohort did not report a unified position with regards access to euthanasia, particularly when such an offering is contextualized. When examined in this manner, opposition to contextualized euthanasia amongst those with a religious affiliation stood at about half of this group, or 15% of the population. 

The findings of the study indicate that Australians, including those who are people of belief, have carefully considered their position on the issue of euthanasia. The level of this consideration can be seen in the full report from which this article is derived. It is important to note that the broader community does not readily support a person’s access to euthanasia for any reason. Rather, it is evident from this study that there is strong and diverse community support for the legalization of euthanasia when it is offered as a voluntary, dignified, pain-free death, where such a service is provided in the context of terminal, end stage disease. Moreover, rather than being an action that de-values humanity, the service is seen as enabling people to die with dignity. 

This article was published by Instinct And Reason on the 6th of June 2018. 

Anthony Hogan PhD is Adjunct Research Professor, Practical and Contextual Theology Centre, Charles Sturt University, Barton. He is a Qualified Professional Market Researcher and Rehabilitation Counsellor.

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