The man glowers at me; obviously expecting an abject apology. Surely it is due to him for I have committed the most heinous of social crimes; I have accused a theologian and ethicist, no less, of telling lies.
“Well, I’m offended that you stood up in front of these people and lied!” I respond, refusing to back down from my allegation.
His face turns white with barely controlled fury.
I study the man with interest. His expression is a strange mixture of rage, indignation and confusion. He’s been doing this schtick for years and while he’s surely had his facts challenged before, it seems no-one has actually called out his propaganda for what it is – a lie.
For the second time that evening, I remind him of his words. I knew exactly what he’d said; I wrote it down as he was speaking.
“You told this audience that, in 1996, [before voluntary euthanasia was formally legalized in the Netherlands*] there were ‘genuine safeguards’ in place; that there was, at least, a ‘process’ in place and doctors wishing to hasten the death of a patient had checklists to complete. Then you told them that, after euthanasia was legalized in 2002, ‘the safeguards disappeared’ and ‘doctors were left to their own recognisance’. That’s not true is it? You lied to these people!”
I gesture at the audience, now mostly mingling around the supper table, although a few interested souls have formed a tight circle behind me, curious to watch the mad woman with her Irish up hoe into the invited speaker.
The man holds up his hand. I am the harridan whose presence can no longer be borne.
“I’m leaving! I’m not listening to this!” he says, as he storms out the door.
I have just ‘done a Deveny’. Like Melbourne comedian, Catherine Deveny, in her famous face-off against Archbishop Peter Jensen on ABC’s Q&A, I have refused to be ‘nice’ in response to a religious person bearing false witness. I have refused to observe the social conventions when dealing with someone using propaganda and misinformation to rationalise their right to restrict my freedom and autonomy in order to appease their god. In the words of the late, great Australian actor, Peter Finch in the movie Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”
In retrospect I’ve wondered if I was too harsh – too blunt. I’ve been turning it over in my mind for a week now. Was he really ‘lying’? What is a lie? Is it a lie if you don’t realise you’re lying? Is that any excuse? Perhaps. But, then again, if you stand up in front of a paying audience, representing yourself as an ‘expert’, isn’t there a standard of truth to which you should be held? Is ignorance of the truth an excuse under such circumstances? Should there be a ‘get out of jail free’ pass for pretending to be something you’re not?
This altercation took place last week, immediately following the “Your Right to Die” debate on voluntary euthanasia, organised by the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties. The event pitted Catholic theologian and bioethicist, Yuri Koszarycz against Neil Francis, CEO of Australia’s peak body for aid-in-dying law reform, Your Last Right.
To give him his due, Koszarycz seems an affable enough man. Casually (some might say geekily) dressed, (in stark contrast to Francis’s polished, urbane sophistication), Koszarycz began his argument against voluntary euthanasia with a rather awkward joke – as if working, I thought, from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Public Speaking. I could almost see the thought balloon hovering above his head, “Put your audience at ease and win their confidence with an opening joke ….”
Thereafter, Koszarycz effected a slightly nervous, self-effacing style of presentation. From time to time, as he recited yet another piece of long-since-debunked Catholic propaganda about the the rampant abuse of euthanasia in the Netherlands, he cupped his hand over his mouth, his thumb resting on his nose, then slowly dragged his hand down his chin; a nervous gesture which only served to undermine his credibility.
Careful never to refer to assisted dying as voluntary euthanasia, Koszarycz tried his very best to paint a grim picture of the Netherlands as a nation in which progressive legislation on aid-in-dying has dissolved into anarchy; where ‘death vans’ now roam the countryside searching out yet more victims to kill, while doctors make arbitrary decisions on who should live and who should die. Really, it’s a miracle there’s a person over 60 still alive in Holland!
Fortunately, Neil Francis was on hand with a calm, professional rebuttal and PowerPoint presentation. Francis’s fully referenced graphs and statistics showed, unequivocally, that Koszarycz’s argument was based more on propaganda than proper research. And this was surprising because Koszarycz’s CV is impressive. The paying audience had a right to expect much better from him.
Formerly a senior lecturer in bioethics at the Australian Catholic University, Koszarycz has degrees in philosophy, theology and education. According to the biographical material distributed at the debate:
“ In 1996 Koszarycz spent a month at the Akademisch Medisch Zentrum in Amsterdam interviewing physicians, nurses, families of patients and some of the patients who were requesting euthanasia. In 2000 he debated Philip Nietschke on the topic of voluntary euthanasia versus excellent palliative care in a forum for nurses in Brisbane. He has also presented a six-lecture series on Death & Dying for staff at the Wesley Hospital.”
If Koszarycz has ever been an expert on assisted dying in the Netherlands, it was not on show at the Irish Club last Wednesday night. Rather than providing a cogent argument against voluntary euthanasia based on hard facts drawn from the extensive and readily accessible medical, academic and governmental literature, Koszarycz simply reeled off a litany of clearly false, outdated and slightly hysterical arguments – all easily debunked by a quietly amused Neil Francis.
The result was that Francis got a free pass while the audience was short-changed. No criticism of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties should be implied; I believe they got the best speaker against voluntary euthanasia available. It’s just a pity that ‘the best’ was quite frankly, appallingly bad.
Instead of a carefully reasoned, thoughtful argument against euthanasia, Koszarycz lazily trotted out all the tired old canards and concluded with a rather insulting lecture on what the Pope thought was appropriate for our end of life care. As I thought of my 88 year old mother, who has repeatedly begged me not to let her suffer the indignities of advanced Alzheimer’s, I wondered why I, a non-Catholic and n0n-believer, should give a flying fuck what the Pope thinks!
As I found out later, there was good reason why Koszarycz’s information was so woefully inadequate and out of date; but he did not disclose this to the audience.
Based on the biography Koszarycz had, presumably, supplied to the organizers, the audience could be excused for expecting to hear an expert on the subject of voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands. I know when I picked up the leaflet left on my seat and read his CV I thought, “This should be good!”
Indeed, I would argue that, simply accepting an invitation to publicly debate the CEO of the peak body FOR euthanasia in this country before a paying audience, signifies an implicit claim about one’s expertise on the subject.
But, it was only after the debate when I challenged Koszarycz on a minor issue of interpretation that he confessed, “Well, there are likely to be some gaps in my knowledge …. I actually haven’t been closely involved in this [euthanasia research] since 1996.”
That’s right! This man who presented himself as an ‘expert’, this man who claimed the moral high ground in the voluntary euthanasia debate, this man who, essentially, represented the views of the Catholic Church – presented an argument that was 16 years out of date!
The burning question for me, of course, is, “Was I unfair? Did Mr Koszarycz really ‘lie’?”
There is no doubt his statement that ‘the safeguards disappeared’ when VE was legalized in the Netherlands in 2002 is fundamentally untrue. In fact, as Neil Francis pointed out, after VE was legalized the ‘processes’ and the ‘genuine safeguards’ which previously existed were not abandoned, but entered into statute. There were not less safeguards, there were more. Further, being legal, VE is no longer practiced under cover as it is here in Australia; it is better reported, better investigated and the safeguards are more strongly enforced.
Perhaps – and I am bending over backwards to be kind here – it wasn’t actually a ‘lie’. Perhaps Mr Koszarycz genuinely didn’t know anything about voluntary euthanasia law in the Netherlands. Perhaps he genuinely believed what he was saying. I am willing to concede that point.
But, if that is true, Koszarycz appeared at last Wednesday’s debate under false pretences. He clearly attended the “Your Right to Die” debate representing himself as an expert on the subject of voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands. That expertise was implied both by his acceptance of the invitation to speak and by his CV. He certainly made no disclaimer before speaking (as he did, to me, after the fact) that his knowledge of the subject was 16 years out of date!
The fact is, if Mr Koszarycz didn’t know his statement (that safeguards had ‘disappeared’ after 2002) was demonstrably false; he should have.
During the audience Q&A I gave Mr Koszarycz the opportunity to resile from his statement. Instead, he was evasive. In reply, he launched into a tirade against ‘the death vans’ –mobile vans carrying medical staff to offer aid-in-dying to people in regional areas where the only available doctor may, for various reasons (including religious), refuse to provide this final act of compassion.
“No! Answer my question!” I insisted – channeling Deveny to the max.
“Do you stand by your assertion that there are now no guidelines, no process, no rules that guide the practice of voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands and that doctors are free to do as they please?”
His response was to the effect that , “Well, er, there, er, may be er, laws and er requirements but er they are er routinely ignored and abused.”
That isn’t so. But, even if it were, that is a far different argument from saying that, after legalisation in 2002, ‘safeguards disappeared’ and doctors were ‘left to their own recognisance’!
Mr Koszarycz is a highly educated man. You cannot tell me he does not understand the difference between safeguards ‘disappearing’ or not existing and laws ‘being broken’.
One might equally argue that after automobiles were introduced to Australia, all the safeguards for driving vehicles on public roads disappeared. To the contrary, as we know, Australia has a raft of strictly enforced laws designed to safeguard road users. The fact that some people break those laws, in no way supports the argument that safeguards are not in place!
As Neil Francis generously concedes in his own post about the debate, “Anyone under the pressure of a live public presentation can get an isolated detail wrong … we’re only human after all.”
But, if Koszarycz meant to argue, not that safeguards were abandoned, but that Dutch VE laws are routinely being broken, it is strange that he failed to mention even one case – one court action – where charges have been laid. Strange, indeed, that he failed to name even one doctor who has been jailed for breaking the law.
In fact, as Mr Kozarycz well knows, every case of VE in the Netherlands is closely investigated. If there is widespread abuse there would be a long list of criminal convictions and these would be jubilantly shared within Catholic networks. So, if this is truly what Koscarycz meant to imply, why did he provide no examples of this systematic abuse of the statutory safeguards?
Mr Koszarycz, I understand, has recently retired as a lecturer in ethics. Perhaps Catholic ethics and atheist ethics are somewhat different. But, I assume, there are some significant overlaps.
For example, I assume that Mr Koszarycz knows that when an audience has paid, in ‘good faith’, to benefit from your ‘expertise’, making misleading, uninformed statements about your subject is unethical.
I can only assume that in the Catholic faith, as elsewhere, presenting oneself as an ‘expert’ without disclosing that one’s knowledge is 16 years out of date is, similarly, unethical.
I also imagine that, as an academic, Mr Koszarycz is well aware that using hyperbole in an argument with the intent of swaying a largely uninformed, general audience to your point of view is also unethical. It’s certainly something that was hammered into me as an undergraduate – although, admittedly, at a non-Catholic university.
I can’t help but wonder just how many naive audiences – church groups, senior citizens groups, service clubs – have heard and swallowed every bit of Mr Koszarycz’s ‘spiel’ on the basis that he is a ‘nice guy’, a theologian, an academic and a ‘good Catholic’.
In fact, after reading Koszarycz’s CV to my 88 year old mother tonight I repeated his claim about the lawlessness of VE in the Netherlands.
She gasped, “That’s terrible!”
When I told her it wasn’t actually true, she was even more appalled.
“People shouldn’t be allowed to do that!” she said, “I would have believed him!”
Let me make this clear. In 2002, when euthanasia was legalized in the Netherlands, the safeguards did not ‘disappear’ as alleged by Mr Koszarycz. In fact, they were written into statute and enforced as law.
What Mr Koszarycz did last week was, in my view, unconscionable. He misrepresented his level of expertise, he failed to disclose that he is not up to date on current VE research, administration and law, and, (among others) he made a bald and hyperbolic statement about VE in the Netherlands that was not only grossly inaccurate but which anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about the subject should have known was false and misleading.
This is not the kind of behaviour that deserves respect and deference. This is the kind of behaviour that deserves to be called out in the strongest possible terms. This is the kind of behaviour that justifies ‘doing a Deveny’.
Yes, of course we need to be sure of our facts before publicly embarrassing someone. But I was sure of my facts and I feel strongly that ‘respectful discourse’ is not the appropriate response to people like Koszarycz who are either intentionally or negligently untruthful.
Mr Koszarycz embarrassed himself, his church and the anti-euthanasia position last week. I hope that next time he is invited to speak on this subject he will have the humility to politely decline the invitation and explain that, while he may once have been an expert on voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, he is no more. It would be, I think, the only ethical thing to do.
*Throughout this post, for ease of communication, I have referred to VE in the Netherlands as having been ‘legalized’ in 2002. The word ‘legalized’ is used in common parlance but, in fact, as the website Exit International explains: “While assisting someone to die is still a crime under the Dutch penal code, the 2002 Act makes VE legally permissible.” It is not ‘quite’ legal but euthanasia and physician assisted suicide ‘are not punishable if the attending physician acts in accordance with criteria of due care’. I hope my readers will forgive the simplification in the service of readability.
- Read about the debate from Neil Francis’ perpective here: Dutch experience misrepresented in Brisbane debate (Consider subscribing to Neil’s blog – it’s good!)
- Find and support a voluntary euthanasia group near you.
- See the transcript of my keynote speech to Dying with Dignity’s NSW 2012 AGM & Conference: The Debate on Assisted Dying: Distortion, Misinformation and the Influence of the Religious Lobby
- Read about another instance of me ‘doing a Deveny’ on dying with dignity: An open letter to Geoff Bullock Family Voice Australia – on voluntary euthanasia (NB: NOT Geoff Bullock the songwriter!)
Disclaimer: Chrys Stevenson speaks independently. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of organized lobbyists for aid-in-dying law reform.