A tsunami of culture-of-death legislation is rolling across the increasingly unfruited plain that is modern-day Australia. Parliament by parliament, our elected representatives have massively expanded the “Overton Window”—the range of policies which the electorate can be persuaded to accept—in relation to issues concerning the ethics of the taking of life. The next stops are Queensland and New South Wales, where draft bills to introduce euthanasia—or to give it the name much preferred by its adherents, “voluntary assisted dying”—are shortly to be considered. We mustn’t use words like killing or suicide in this context, of course.
In New South Wales, the proposed euthanasia bill follows the passage of what Tony Abbott has described as “infanticide-on-demand” legislation in Macquarie Street in 2019. It also follows the passage of similar euthanasia legislation in South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and Victoria (naturally).
The author of the New South Wales bill is, inevitably, Alex Greenwich, the homosexual activist and independent (read Greens) member for the inner-city seat of Sydney. Greenwich claims to have support from across the political spectrum. Given that only two of nineteen Nationals chose to oppose the recent abortion legislation, and that the Nationals’ leader John Barilaro has indicated his support for the assisted-dying bill, one cannot hold out great hope that the bill will be defeated.
Following the passage of the federal same-sex-marriage legislation in 2017, it seems that politicians of all persuasions across the land have felt suddenly empowered to turn open the floodgates in relation to ethical matters thought previously to be well beyond the realms of the achievable. The (dubious) evidence of a number of polls is said to show that a comfortable majority of Australians support this legislation. The evidence from such polling has been used as a key tool by supporters of euthanasia legislation, including Greenwich, to persuade their parliamentary colleagues to come on board.
The ABC chirruped in 2019: “Euthanasia support strengthens to nearly 90pc, Vote Compass data shows”. Well, of course it did. I wonder how the questions were phrased.
Australians seem to be under a spell of doublethink and display massive cognitive dissonance in relation to the frail aged. On the one hand, we wish to allow them to commit suicide, while at the same time allowing a disgraceful, embarrassing, low-care, low-dignity environment to persist in our aged “care” system, and not to punish the governments on whose watch this has occurred. Generally, we fret over mental health and the terrible suicide rate. Help lines and the organisations that man them radiate concern for those contemplating suicide. I suppose it therefore makes perfect sense not to mention the “s” word when speaking of assisted dying. (The “s” word has, indeed, been written out of various pieces of euthanasia legislation precisely to pretend that suicide and killing are not involved in “assisted dying”.)
According to Queensland Health, “Voluntary assisted dying allows a person who is suffering and dying from a life limiting condition to choose the timing and circumstances of their death.” Yes, the Queensland health bureaucracy is promoting suicide!
The politicians are protected in this process because they can hide behind a “conscience vote” whose outcome seems destined to be forgotten by the time of the following election. And, in the case of euthanasia—if not abortion, which everyone including its more honest supporters seems to recognise is an undeniably awful act—there is a widespread view that it saves old and sick people from pain, so it must be beneficial, and, after all, unlike aborted foetuses, the aged-suicidal get to have a say in their demise.
Whence comes the opposition to the euthanasia tsunami? Stalwart organisations such as Right to Life and the Australian Family Coalition have fought the good fight, yet often seem mainly to be talking to their own supporters, and not to be making sufficient impact upon the broader electorate to make politicians pause before waving the radical legislation through.
There used to be a bastion of intellectual endeavour in support of the pro-life cause and scholarship in bioethics, at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, which was supported by John Paul II, a philosopher focused on the culture of life, and Benedict XVI, a theologian focused on the dictatorship of relativism. The present incumbent in Rome—with a far weaker philosophical bent and far less focus on the culture of death—had the institute closed down in 2018. Other sources of concentrated scholarly endeavour in support of the culture of life and of traditional safeguards for our core institutions are rare indeed.
Most of the mainstream denominations are vigorous in their stated opposition to legislation that threatens the lives of the unborn and the frail aged. Yet, there are few now in the pews listening to the words of their pastors, if, indeed, these pastors choose to preach on life issues. Most surveys now show, as well, that there is little difference in the views of so-called Christians and the great secular unwashed in relation to moral issues that once upon a time showed sharp divisions. And at least some of the churches have been rendered mute in the face of their own failings in relation to sex abuse.
Against the outstanding, yet unsuccessful, pro-life groups, we have an array of celebrities driving the debates and watching the dominoes fall. For decades, Australia’s own Dr Death, Philip Nitschke, carried the baton. Now we have the ABC’s Andrew Denton, who has been scurrying all over the nation proselytising in support of the aged-suicidal. They have the usual high-profile voices internationally to support them, like those of Hugh Grant, Patrick Stewart and Stephen Hawking. Their arguments are cleverly designed to pull at the heartstrings. Just like the same-sex-marriage argument—if it can be called that—that “love is love”. The task of resistance, then, involves hard work and is not for the faint-hearted.
Into this swamp, and into the culture of death, rides one of Australia’s foremost bio-ethicists and life-issues scholars, the retired South Australian Catholic priest and academic John Fleming. In his late seventies now, Fleming continues to fight the good fight. His battles against abortion and euthanasia have spanned many decades of robust scholarship and activism, in academia and in the print and broadcast media in Adelaide, where he was the Foundation Director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute. Most recently, he has been forced to witness his own state’s parliament finally caving in following a long-term push by the advocates of death. It took them something like seventeen attempts, but they got there in the end. (And they were cheered on by another Liberal-in-name-only government and its Attorney-General, Vicki Chapman. This would be the same Liberal Party most recently in the news for hosing Christians out of the party’s branches.)
Father Fleming’s To Kill or Not to Kill: Euthanasia in a Society with a Cultural Death Wish is one mighty attempt to push back against the culture and against the politicians who are pushing the anti-life agenda. And not a moment too soon.
Fleming has written what amounts to an exegesis on the wrongs of those who would wish on us mercy killing and all of its close relatives—abortion up-to-birth on demand, homosexual marriage, transgendered rights, and anything else that the neo-pagan, cultural Marxist, postmodern world can throw at us. Fleming’s work is built on the method of textual analysis, and he has done his research to a monumental standard.
To Kill or Not to Kill is a heavy tome, weighing in at over five hundred pages, summoning sources from the worlds of politics, bioethics, philosophy, history and culture, and dealing with matters of life and death, against seemingly insurmountable opposition among the elite classes. The book considers matters of moral theology, metaphysics and bioethics. But it also examines Australian political processes and the arguments swilling around therein. As well as its heavy rhetorical hitting and heavy philosophical lifting, it betrays a lightness of touch that makes it accessible to the general reader who doesn’t happen to be a scholar or have a postgraduate qualification in philosophy. Fleming has done the hard work so we don’t have to. And his messaging is clear, in spite of the highly complex moral issues and fine distinctions to which euthanasia gives rise.
This is a book of immense scholarship, broad interdisciplinary research, political awareness and razor-sharp focus, leavened with a practitioner’s worldly wisdom and political nous. Fleming’s conviction, above all, is that good arguments matter in critical debates, even in this age of superficial soundbites, cliches and focus-group-driven politics. Probably no one is Australia could have done a better job in pulling together all the disparate strands—legal, medical, philosophical, religious and political—than John Fleming.
Fleming skewers quite a few canards. There is a clue to one of them in the title. Euthanasia enthusiasts avoid using the word kill at all costs. There are many kinds of lies, and one of the ideologue’s favourites is to deflect the truth with euphemisms. Another is to create straw men and false dichotomies. People like Andrew Denton—whose words and activism Fleming examines with forensic enthusiasm—are constantly setting up a nightmare scenario for the dying that only exists in his imagination. In the dystopian present painted by euthanasia advocates as lacking care and lacking choice for the dying, several key realities are missed. Like the fact that patients, doctors and families have resources (in the form of painkillers) and the choices related to these resources that may even—legally—hasten death. Fleming is at pains to call a halt to the lies and exaggerations that are fed into the debate from the pro-euthanasia side.
ANOTHER feature of the book is Fleming’s painstaking work in situating the emergence of support for euthanasia in the broader cultural climate of the times. He is not alone to have written on the decline of religious belief and the takeover of the public square by what amounts to a secularist religion determined to banish Christian (in particular) ethics. Yet he sees not merely parallels but causative links between the appearance of euthanasia and the parking of God, which has similarly seen the collapse of marriage, the rise of mainstreamed homosexuality and the creeping crisis of fatherlessness. When people cease believing in God, as Chesterton famously opined, they do not believe in nothing but become capable of believing in anything. Added to this epoch-defining development has been the emergence of postmodernism as both a decisive philosophy of the age and a practical “my truth and your truth” belief system of most people, especially of those under forty years of age. We have suffered, too, from an activist judiciary that sees its role as changing society when the legislature doesn’t.
The commanding heights of our world are now occupied comfortably by those who wish to tear down the remnants of a once great culture. And most of all, the underpinning values system of our Western culture—Judeo-Christian morality, Greek philosophy and Roman law—have been brought low by internal enemies whose targets have been marked for destruction.
John Fleming understands all of this. Perhaps the key message of the book is that euthanasia, for all of its intrinsic evil, is also a battle in a bigger war. In many ways, the book is about the war and not just the battle. Some readers may have wished for more detail on the euthanasia battle itself, but the other battles in the war are also critical, and each sheds light on the development of the euthanasia engagements. In any case, there is still plenty in the book on euthanasia and euthanasia politics to be going on with.
Two case studies stand out. One is a case study in slippery slopes, regarded by some as one of the less worthy arguments among the rhetorical sciences. When you look at the experience of euthanasia in Belgium over the last two decades, however, as Fleming does, you get a picture of what almost inevitably happens when you open the door to “assisted dying”. We move, as if seamlessly, from “I decide” to “my relatives and the doctor decide” in no time flat. Tragically, we also move towards allowing the young to be assisted to commit suicide. Oh yes, slippery slopes are very real.
Fleming’s second case study is of the South Australian Parliament’s mid-2010s debates on euthanasia. (Since then, that same Parliament has capitulated.) It was here that Andrew Denton’s advocacy came to the fore and proved persuasive to many. As in so many cases where prominent people champion a cause, there is some deeply held personal motivation. Hence the politician parents of gay children who claim to have been mistreated in life end up advocating same-sex marriage. Denton’s father had a sad and painful death. His celebrity son has parlayed this into a cause celebre, and many relevant facts, distinctions and realities get lost on the journey. One such reality is the very decent care that characterises palliative care, dismissed as inadequate by the euthanasia ideologues.
Fleming’s study is of John Paul II’s notion of a culture of death, but with antecedents long and broad explained in detail and with understanding and deftness. In this way, this is a book of back-stories, and it stacks up with other works in this genre. Hence, we see the links to the nihilism of Nietzsche, the religious beliefs—yes, for Fleming, they are religious—of the modern village atheists and secularists (like Richard Dawkins and Brian Morris), the once (and perhaps still) fashionable belief in eugenics, the connections to “scientific” racism, the rise of secularism as a new religion, the affliction of scientism that has allowed so many truths to be crushed and non-truths to be erected in their place, the bastardisation of democratic process through judicial activism, and the re-emergence of the insidious god of neo-Malthusianism and population control in the guise of sustainability and green politics.
What some readers may see as lengthy detours turn out to be necessary (and informative) stopping points on the way to a full explanation of something that many of us have, until recently, seen as grotesque. “How we got here” might also have been an apt subtitle for the book.
Fleming’s detailed and fascinating history of eugenics is especially revealing, and worth the price of the book on its own. What is striking is the astonishing continuity of eugenics thinking, its pernicious reach and its current incarnation. This is truly arresting material, and it shows, as Fleming does elsewhere in the book (including in the Denton chapter) the power of euphemism, also known as lying about realities and intentions. A number of the other excursions in the book are just as rewarding. As the American historian William Tighe notes in his foreword to the book:
Only by linking together these themes can it be discerned that the strife over euthanasia is not the result of a spontaneous upwelling of a desire, whether well-founded or ill-informed, to alleviate suffering, but of a calculated attempt to overthrow the ethical religious foundations on which Western civilisation was built … and to substitute for them a modern humanist … utilitarian one …
No, none of us have noticed people taking to the streets to demand mercy killing for the sick and the old. Euthanasia is merely another manifestation of the evil that men do, in the name of an ideology that doesn’t look much like anything that we have had to endure before our own lifetimes.
Fleming’s analysis explains both where the evil ideas that underpin euthanasia have come from, and why so many people believe in them. This all amounts to what the Australian Christian Lobby has termed a “paradigm shift”. This has all happened on our culpable watch. In Fleming’s term, borrowing from Lenin, we have been useful idiots.
Will the book have an impact? Or will Fleming’s efforts fall upon deaf ears? He notes:
Expertly manipulated by those who have embraced secularism as their default “religion or belief”, the wider society sleepwalks to the precipice of a new and malignant cultural imperialism which, when fully achieved, may awaken them from their slumber but too late to do much about it.
Winning the arguments and showing up the blunders and lies of one’s opponents counts for a lot, even when one is facing a low-information electorate seemingly swayed by those who appeal to easy memes, superficial rhetoric and lowest-common-denominator notions such as “love” (in the same-sex-marriage debates), “choice” (in the abortion wars) and “dignity” (in relation to euthanasia).
This powerful book holds the purveyors of half-truths, loaded and misleading messaging and facile arguments to account. It takes a baseball bat to the lies told and the evil ideas behind them. Fleming wins the arguments by a handy distance. And they are arguments that are not just an Australian problem. As the Belgian case demonstrates and as much of Fleming’s material reveals, the threats to all Western nations from the euthanasia push and from its de-Christianising, secularist backing agenda are real and growing. This makes the book essential reading for a broad, international audience.
A book of this weight on a topic of both urgent and far longer-term importance is, alas, unlikely to be used as a resource by morally befuddled politicians who prefer their briefings to be in dot points and take their soundings from the latest gust of popular wind. Whatever else the pro-euthanasia crowd have by way of argument and moral heft, they certainly have political momentum, in a nation where each state simply seems now to follow the others on just about every conceivable area of policy.
Is the book too late, then? Those who battle the odds in relation to life issues see their work as a lifelong endeavour. They have to. The war simply never ends. Witness the abortion wars in the United States. There are so many fronts on which to fight this war—legislative, judicial, in Washington, in the fifty states, in the universities, on the streets, in the bookshops. There is never final victory, only ever setbacks or progress. So, no, it is never too late to state and to restate the truth on matters this important. While there is always the risk—perhaps even the inevitability—of euthanasia legislation, once introduced, only ever being made worse, there is also the opportunity to push back hard even after the initial legislation is passed.
This book deserves a massive readership. Opponents of John Fleming or of the philosophy of life that he espouses will make it their business to ensure that it fails. Don’t let the purveyors of what Fleming tellingly terms “inhuman utopianism” win.
To Kill or Not to Kill: Euthanasia in a Society with a Cultural Death Wish
by John Fleming
Austin Macauley, 2021, 560 pages, about $45
Paul Collits is a freelance writer and former academic who lives in rural New South Wales.