AUSTRALIANS OFTEN COMPLAIN that the rest of the world pays them little attention. The last few weeks have seen this situation change dramatically. Racialist attacks on immigration by a maverick MP from Queensland, Pauline Hanson, have led to a wave of protests across Asia while the death of the first person under the Northern Territory’s law permitting euthanasia drew media coverage all around the world.

Church leaders have not been backward in commenting on the evils of racialism but it is the topic of euthanasia which has demanded the most careful analysis, especially given the level of support it appears to enjoy in the wider community. A backbencher has introduced a bill in the national parliament to overturn the Northern Territory legislation and this has aroused opposition not only from supporters of abortion but also from those who see it as a threat to the States’ rights (even though the Northern Territory is not in fact a fully-fledged State).

At the same time as the debate on euthanasia has waged fast and furious, the subject of abortion has also returned to prominence as a result of a strange legal case brought by an unnamed woman against a medical clinic for failing to diagnose her pregnancy in time for her to have an abortion in safety. Even though this happened a number of years ago and the woman has reared her child quite happily, she still looked for compensation.

The matter was eventually settled out of court, but the Catholic Health Services and all doctors, nurses and other medical workers who do not wish to be pressurised into performing abortions are understandably concerned.

Similar issue arise in the debates about both abortion and euthanasia. In each case it is claimed that what is being requested is simply a free choice. All that sick patients demand is the right to die with dignity, and all that women want is the right to decide what happens in their own wombs. In fact both these arguments are really dangerous simplifications.

Once legislation is in place permitting assisted suicide, elderly or infirm patients are bound to feel under pressure to take that step. No matter how many safeguards are in place, there is the danger that people will opt for suicide under the influence of a passing depression or on the basis of a mistaken understanding of their own condition. This is why the association of psychiatrists is opposed to euthanasia.

In common with other Western nations, the population of Australia is aging. At present 12 per cent of Australians are aged over 65; by 2011 this will have gone up to 14 per cent with almost 2 per cent over 85. Care of the elderly already consumes a large proportion of the national budget and this is set to increase. There is a real danger that elderly and vulnerable people will feel under an obligation to save society extra expense. It is easy to see why aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are alarmed by developments.

While the limitations of the free choice argument in relation to euthanasia have been at least discussed, they have been less widely understood in the case of abortion. Yet there is plenty of evidence from the US and elsewhere that many women who terminate the life of their unborn child do so from poverty and because society, having legalised abortion, is unwilling to find the resources to enable them to give birth to their children and support them.

Does a single woman on welfare really make a free choice to end the life in her womb? In many cases she does not but she is still left to feel guilty all the same. One survey in the US in 1988 found the second most common reason women gave for an abortion was that they couldn’t afford the child. The same report revealed that while 14 per cent of American women fell below the poverty line, one third of all abortions patients are in this category. At the start of the decade New York health authorities were estimating that within six year the cost of care for babies born to crack-addicted mothers would exceed $1 billion. Abortion seemed the cheapest solution.

With advances in genetic science there are new motives for abortion. In India, where the dowry system still operates, the selective abortion of female foetuses is a major problem. In many Western nations it is now possible for parents to procure an abortion if there is just a chance of their child being born with a deformity of some kind. Genetic discrimination has now arrived on the scene. With the help of geneticists parents can discover what kind of child they are likely to have and abort any that does not meet their requirement. We can commodify our children just like our houses or our clothes. Designer babies are at last a possibility.

The result of this way of thinking about parenting is bound to be diminished respect for those who are disabled or different in some way. The same attitude is likely to be fostered by euthanasia. Once it becomes common, the feeling will grow that people who are helpless or who cannot cope do not deserve to be alive. If we use euthanasia to sweep away the infirmities of age or terminal illness, we are not going to want to see physical or mental incapacity elsewhere. There will be little compassion for the handicapped or mentally ill. Society will only value people who are healthy, beautiful and clever.

Racialism, genetic discrimination, desire to be rid of the trials of old age – they all represent an attempt to avoid the untidy mess with which we are daily confronted. Human beings come to us in all shapes and sizes. The age-old challenge to us is to love people who are different and to cherish them because of their difference. We have to love those who do not belong to our tribe or culture, those whose skin is a different colour from our own, and those who do not share our physical health and strength or our mental abilities. In other human beings, in all their many forms, we see the image of God, not the result of our own plans and designs. That, surely, is an important aspect of the Christian message.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.