Paul Richardson

Australia’s debate about euthanasia shows signs of widening its scope into a debate about the role of religion in public life. Kevin Andrews, the Liberal (i.e. conservative) MP from Victoria who sponsored the successful bill in the national parliament to overturn the Northern Territory legislation permitting euthanasia, is a Catholic and this had led to allegations of a “holy alliance” operating behind the scenes to impose Christian morality on secular Australia.

According to a story in the Weekend Australian, Andrews was backed by an influential network of lobbyists, journalists and MPs that conducted the most effective political campaign in recent Australian history. All its principal members were Catholics. It included both Liberal and Labour party supporters and its organising force was a young Labour lobbyist called Tony Burke who has now moved on the help the republican campaign.

Dark insinuations are also being made about a Liberal body of MPs, the Lyons Forum, to which the Prime Minister, John Howard, has links. This is an ecumenical Christian group committed to promoting conservative social values. The Forum has pushed for legislation to curb Australia’s multi-million dollar pornography industry but so far has secured only a tiny victory in the shape of a government decision to ban violent erotica.

A major campaigner against euthanasia, abortion and pornography is Brian Harradine, an independent, devoutly Roman Catholic senator from Tasmania, whose vote is crucial in an upper chamber where the government lacks an overall majority. Harradine has not been backward in warning that the price of his support to secure passage of essential legislation like the budget is action on moral issues and he has made it plain that he is not satisfied with the steps so far taken to censor pornography.

Despite the success of Kevin Andrews and his friends, the debate about euthanasia in Australia is far from over. It was possible for the federal parliament to over-rule a law passed in the Northern Territory but it could not do the same if similar legislation were to be passed by one of the States. Such is the influence of the Catholic Church in the Labour Party in New South Wales that it is unlikely to happen there but the situation could arise in Victoria where the Thatcherite premier, Jeff Kennett, has made libertarian noises and where the Labour Party has been alienated from the Catholic church ever since the days when Archbishop Daniel Mannix sponsored a breakaway Democratic Labour Party.

Clearly the whole question of the role the churches ought to play as advocates of morality in a secular society is a very complex one. The prevailing liberal attitude to the issue has been well summarised by the distinguished Oxford philosopher, Sir Peter Strawson. According to Strawson, a distinction needs to be made between basic rules that are essential for the existence of any society and which may be imposed by law, and ethical ideals of life that human beings ought to be free to pursue as they think fit.

Those who follow this approach argue that we have to learn to live with a degree of ethical diversity. People do hold different, even contradictory visions, of the good life and, rather than seek to impose a single intense vision, society must leave people free to pursue their own ideals.

The problem is that it is not as easy to draw the distinction between basic moral laws and ethical ideals as most pluralists imagine. Christians certainly cannot see their faith as merely a private preference, a hobby that possesses no claim to objective truth and gives no guidance about how society should be organised.

both abortion and euthanasia are controversial because they raise the issue of the sanctity of life, surely a core moral value. Euthanasia is advocated as a right that individuals in great pain should be free to exercise so that they do not need to go on suffering. Only a tiny proportion of terminal patients do in fact suffer great pain and one problem about legalising euthanasia for them is that it would be exceedingly difficult to control The gap between voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia is not as great as people imagine, particularly when doctors are confronted by patients who are not really capable, for one reason or another, of making a decision. Once a law is passed, the pressure will build up for people to take that option.

In a democratic, largely secular nation like Australia, the churches cannot expect to impose their views on the rest of society. But they have the right to argue their case and to seek to ensure that moral issues are taken into account when public policy is formulated. Christians in public life have to make their own decision about when it is appropriate to act on their own convictions and when it is necessary to recognise that the climate of opinion does not yet allow them to take that step. Governor Mario Cuomo in the US and Tony Blair in Britain have both made that point in relation to abortion.

Analysing recent British history, David Marquand has suggested that as well as a swing in opinion between individualism and collectivism, we can also detect a swing between hedonism and moralism (and these two swings are not to be identified). Politics in Britain and other western democracies is about more than economics. People do respond to moral reformers who call fro a sense of purpose in public life.

This is the message that the roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales tried to put across in their document The Common Good where they warned that democracy can never be “a self-fulfilling justification for policies that are intrinsically immoral”. The bishops went on to argue that “democracy is not a self-sufficient moral system. Democracy if it is to be healthy requires more than universal sufferance: it requires the presence of a system of common values.”