Public Opinion — Christian opposition a tiny minority

Some religious people claim that interest in voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill comes only from a minority of secularists. For example, His Grace Adrian Doyle, Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, wrote in a letter dated 15th July 2009 “they [members of Parliament] should be reminded that they are not authorised to impose upon our society the secular agenda of a few while ignoring the moral and religious values of so many Australians.

Curiously, His Grace Denis Hart, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, also write precisely those same words in a letter dated 24th April 2008.

However, the facts are that independent professional polls show the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that the terminally ill with intolerable suffering that has no acceptable form or relief should have the right to ask for medical assistance to die peacefully on their own terms. For example, a national poll [1] conducted in 2007 by the respected professional social research company, Newspoll, found that 80% of Australians favoured such a right, including 74% of Catholics, 82% of Anglicans and 91% of those with no religion (nearly one in five Australians [2]). Just 14% of Australians (21% of Catholics, 11% of Anglicans and 5% of those with no religion) are opposed to such choice. Opinion in support of physician assisted dying has been in the majority for decades.[1]

Therefore, the opinions Their Graces express are at odds with the facts, and do not even express a majority opinion of their own flocks. A very small minority of Australians oppose.

[1] Methodology and results of a major 2007 national survey are available here…
[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 census data: 18.5%.

graph

The overwhelming majority of people of faith support choice
for voluntary euthanasia.

Christian support is not new

Excerpt of a paper by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Dutney published in the Monash Bioethics Review Vol. 16 No. 2 dated April 1997.

As it happens, Christians have always been active in the modern voluntary euthanasia lobby. Among the founders of the American Euthanasia Society, in 1945, were prominent Christians such as the New York divines Henry Sloan Coffin, the President of Union Seminary, and Harry Emerson Fosdick, the minister of Baptist Riverside Church. Contemporary organisations such as the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society call attention to clerical supporters of their cause—such as Michael Hare Duke, the Episcopal Church in Scotland’s Bishop of St. Andrews, or Lord Soper, a former president of the English Methodist Church, or Jacques Pohier, the eminent though controversial Catholic theologian—by printing and distributing their essays and addresses in support of voluntary euthanasia.

When Australian Christians have been asked to indicate anonymously their attitude to some form of euthanasia, there have been no shortage of supporters. According to the 2002 Morgan Poll in South Australia, 81% respondents nominating as Anglicans, 66% of Presbyterians, 69% of Catholics and 74% of those identifying with the Uniting Church supported voluntary euthanasia. The National Church Life Survey of church attenders (1991) found lower, but still high levels of support for some form of euthanasia—51% of Anglicans, 37% of Presbyterians and 59% of Uniting Church attenders. Among other factors, the difference between the levels of support in these surveys is related to the fact that the Morgan Poll included nominal Christians whereas the NCLS focussed on church attenders only.

Caution is needed in comparing the findings of unrelated surveys, but two comments seem worth making. From one perspective it could be said that the difference in results of the two surveys shows that the more contact people have had with their church the less likely they are to support voluntary euthanasia. That is, something about the church and its teachings runs against the current in society which supports the cause of voluntary euthanasia. But from another perspective it could be said that the NCLS findings show that involvement in the church and adherence to its teachings is quite compatible with support for voluntary euthanasia. The numbers are smaller among attenders than among nominal Christians, but the numbers are still strikingly large, showing majority support among active Anglicans and Uniting Church people. Of course we don’t do ethics on a show of hands, “Thus said the Lord: the ayes have it”! But especially in Protestant churches, we do take seriously the considered opinions of our sisters and brothers as we struggle to discern God’s will together. The body of lay opinion in support of some form of euthanasia has to be engaged, respected, and taken seriously in that process of discernment. It ought not to be ignored, talked round, or bullied into silence by the churches”, “experts” or “authorities”.