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Order of Malta Australia


Catholic Bioethics Conference – the Future of Freedom in Healthcare and Doctor-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia legislation


Pictured: Medical students being acknowledged


Report by Eamonn Mathieson

On Saturday 14 September, over 120 healthcare professionals and bioethicists attended the Australian Catholic Bioethics Conference and Dinner at the Park Hyatt Melbourne, hosted by the Australian Catholic Medical Association (CMA) and the Order of Malta. Several other sponsors including, Cabrini Health, St Vincent’s Health and Integer Financial Group, generously supported the event and enabled twelve medical students to attend both the conference and the dinner.

The conference drew a large audience, with many glad to see the tradition of Annual Catholic Bioethics Colloquiums, which were inaugurated and led by Prof Nicholas Tonti-Filippini for many years with the support of the Order of Malta and the John Paul II Institute, was once again a fixture on the Australian Catholic scene.

The afternoon’s conference, focussed on two specific issues. The first being the Future of Freedom in Healthcare and the second, Victoria’s Doctor-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (DAS and E) legislation, deceptively known as Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD).

The first session, on the future of Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Healthcare, was chaired by Mr Nigel Zimmerman, Principal Advisor to Melbourne’s Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli. He provided an overview on the vexed issue of how best to protect Religious Freedom in our current culture, and the contemporary political challenges we face, which provided the setting for the other speakers to engage the subject.

Fr Paschal Corby OFM Conv, a bioethicist and medical graduate from Monash University who is also the current chaplain of the Victorian Catholic Medical Association, spoke on the imperative of maintaining Conscientious Objection (CO) in the practice of medicine. He described the recent and growing assault on CO in Healthcare by influential bioethicists, including Julian Savulescue, detailing their arguments and underlying premises, as well as their misconceptions of the nature of CO as constituting ‘cognitive bias, self-interest, personal beliefs and whims driven by irrational motives founded on religious beliefs incompatible with modern medicine’.

In response Fr Paschal defended the Christian understanding of Conscience whose dignity is rooted in its witness to truth and its revelation of the fundamental truths of the human person. Truths not derived from positive law but written on the human heart, constitutive of the human person and of human flourishing. Conscience is therefore not seen merely as a ‘right’ or a valid contribution to a pluralist society by minorities, but as an essential element in a healthy society and an uncorrupted medical profession. Conscientious Objectors challenge the profession of medicine to be true to itself, providing the necessary stimulus to reconsider and justify its practices and maintain its legitimacy in the light of reasoned principles fundamental to the practice of good medicine and the promotion of the Common Good.

Assoc Prof Patrick Quirk, an academic lawyer working at the Australian Catholic University, in an address referencing Chesterton called ‘How to Cheat the Prophet’ provided several predictions about the future of freedom of conscience in Australia, drawing on his knowledge and experience of several international legislatures. He described the current picture as ‘non too rosy’, given the current moves to replicate Victoria’s coercive conscience laws in other state jurisdictions and expanding the scope to include euthanasia. He provided an overview of the current state of play with the current draft of the federal Religious Discrimination Bill, explaining its long and complex nature and task, and concluded by citing subclause 8, subsection 5 of the draft and quoting from paragraph 140 of the Explanatory. Memorandum, it reveals that current state laws hold sway in these matters of freedom of conscience and religion, thereby confirming the Commonwealth government ‘will NOT be coming to the rescue’ in states, such as Victoria, that have already outlawed their expression.

Dr Bernadette Tobin, one of Australia’ s leading bioethicists who works at the Plunkett Centre of the Australian catholic University, spoke about the scope and limits of Conscientious Objection, using the case of legalisation of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a case study to explore these issues. By providing an alternative to abortion and euthanasia as the standard bearers of CO discussion, Prof Tobin allowed the issue of conscience and freedom to take on a clearer focus. This and other difficult ethical cases provided for a fresh examination of the complexities of moral discernment and decision making, highlighting the universal nature of conscience as integral to the human experience of reality.

Following afternoon tea, the second session was chaired by Ms Julia Trimboli, a bioethicist working at Mercy Health, who also spoke about her experience in responding to the VAD legislation; detailing the many challenges she faced in leading the Mercy Health team to prepare and most importantly inform and educate the staff members who would be affected by the new legislation. She then introduced Mr Dan Fleming, a bioethicist at St Vincent’s Health, who spoke about his experience leading Catholic Health Australia’s (CHA) task force, which was set up to educate, prepare and train its member organisations and their staff to respond to the many practical and ethical issues related to the enactment of the VAD legislation.

Mr Paul Santamaria QC, who provided CHA with legal advice regarding the VAD Legislation, spoke about the inadequacies of the purported safeguards of the legislation for protecting the vulnerable, describing the effect of the safe guards as mere wallpaper over the cracks of a fundamentally flawed and unsound structure. The issue of wrongful deaths was also raised with the many ways in which the VAD legislation could facilitate them were described. With minimal or non-existent oversight and little or no risk or consequence for possible offenders, no Coroner involvement and the ‘legal’ falsification of death certificates by doctors, the issue of ‘life and death conflicts of interest’ between patient, doctor and family becomes an ever present reality, but now shrouded and protected by an unjust and dangerous new law.

The main speaker for the dinner was Prof Iain Benson, a leading international academic and practising lawyer in the area of Freedom of Religion, from the University of Notre Dame. In his address he demonstrated the old Chesterton adage that ‘only living things go against the stream’ by delivering a lively challenge to the status quo of a conformist modern medical ethics as well as a withering critique of the use of ‘values-language’ in healthcare and education, and has recently replaced and undermined the time-honoured and objective ‘virtues-language’ of Christianity and Greek philosophy with an abstract and subjectivist moral framework of Post-Modern confusion.

Following Prof Benson’ address the medical students in attendance each received a five volume set of Prof Nicholas Tonti- Filippini’s books called ‘About Bioethics’, courtesy of a Memorial Fund set up in his honour. These gifts were presented to the students following Prof Benson ‘s after-dinner

It is hoped this conference and dinner will continue as an annual event in which philosophers, bioethicists and health professionals gather to learn from each other and support each other in what is becoming an increasingly challenging and difficult to practice medicine in accord with a traditional and Christian ethos of healthcare.

The Australian Association

The Australian Association, formed in 1974, currently has in excess of 300 members and aspirant members across every State and Territory of Australia. We also have ongoing and strong links with the Order’s National Associations throughout the Asia Pacific Region including in Singapore and the Philippines and with members of the Order in New Zealand, Hong Kong SAR, Thailand and Korea. The Order of Malta is committed to serving Our Lords the Poor and Sick worldwide and has done so for over 900 years. This website shares with you the history, mission and current activities of the Order of Malta in Australia, and provides links to the work of the Order world-wide.