ACT euthanasia laws encroach on religious freedom

In a seemingly relentless pursuit of individual autonomy at any cost, successive state and territory governments around Australia have, or are about to, legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide.

However, the true impact of these laws on religious freedom is becoming more apparent.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide laws encroach on the religious freedom of health practitioners and faith-based institutions because they create a conflict between the wishes of patients seeking state-assisted suicide and the rights of healthcare providers and institutions to object to participating in procedures that intentionally end a patient's life. These laws resolve the conflict in favour of assisted suicide, against the medical and ethical judgement of Christian healthcare practitioners.

The Australian Capital Territory, one of the last jurisdictions in Australia to introduce euthanasia and assisted suicide laws, has proposed the most extreme laws in the country. Among many of its provisions that go far beyond those legislated in other states, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2023 does not require a timeframe for life expectancy, and allows health practitioners such as counsellors and social workers to raise the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide with patients. It includes criminal penalties for facilities that fail to provide information about euthanasia and assisted suicide to patients or fail to transfer a patient to a facility to be assessed for the scheme. Health practitioners similarly face criminal sanctions if they fail to provide information about “approved care navigators” to patients in circumstances where they conscientiously object to participating in euthanasia itself.

Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Christopher Prowse, in a submission to the inquiry, said it was concerning that “simply exercising one’s conscience in full is sufficient to be considered and penalised as a criminal”:

The rights of conscience, and, in our case, freedom of religion are severely constrained by the provisions of this bill as it stands.

Last year’s hostile takeover of the Calvary Catholic hospital in Canberra, a not-for-profit Catholic health care organisation run by the Little Company of Mary, removed the last significant barrier to universal implementation of these laws in the ACT. The hospital was previously on the record as saying that it would not provide euthanasia or assisted suicide in any of its facilities, as the practice contravenes the sanctity of human life, a fundamental Christian value upon which the hospital was founded and operates.

This ideologically motivated takeover, in conjunction with the recently introduced Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, represents a concerted effort by the territory government to remove religion from the public square regarding this highly contentious issue.

In Canada, where euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legal since 2016, activists are currently preparing to sue a Catholic hospital, St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, because it refuses to allow euthanasia and assisted suicide to take place at its facility.

Given the inadequacy of protections for religious freedom in Australia for both individuals and institutions, this latest development from Canada may provide a prescient warning for faith-based hospitals here in Australia. In time, they may also find themselves prevented from operating their facilities in accordance with their ethics and values.

It is imperative that the Federal government acts immediately to enact a religious discrimination act in Australia, to ensure that religious freedom rights are given protection in law, and individuals and institutions can continue to operate their facilities in accordance with their ethos and values.