Voluntary euthanasia is a subject which inherently incites passionate debate from both advocates and opponents. Of course, it is only right that voluntary euthanasia legislation should be approached cautiously, with due regard for the rights and safety of patients. Those who find flaws in current or proposed legislation should, of course, state their case forcefully – using evidence and reason as a means of persuasion.
Unfortunately, this is not what happens commonly in debates over voluntary euthanasia legislation.
In a scholarly (2008) tome on voluntary euthanasia in Europe, John Griffiths, Emeritus Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Groningen, complains that:
“Imprecision, exaggeration, suggestion and innuendo, misinterpretation and misrepresentation, ideological ipsedixitism, and downright lying and slander (not to speak of bad manners) have taken the place of careful analysis of the problem and consideration of the Dutch evidence.”
It would not be inaccurate to say that the vast majority of this kind of breathtakingly mendacious propaganda emanates from the Catholic Church and its supporters.
Last year, I had the privilege of viewing a yet-to-be released video interview between Els Borst, the politician who proposed the Netherland’s voluntary euthanasia bill and Neil Francis, formerly the CEO of Australia’s peak body on dying with dignity, Your Last Right.
In the video, Ms Borst complains that, in the late 1990s, after L’Osservatore Romano, the ‘semi-official’ newspaper of the Holy See, printed ‘absolute lies’ about voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands she headed a delegation to the Vatican. Together with the Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Ambassador to the Holy See, Ms Borst told three top-level officials that if the lies didn’t stop, the Netherlands would sever diplomatic ties with the Vatican. It was that serious.
Earlier this month, I became aware of Sydney GP, Dr Catherine Lennon; a woman who shows the lengths to which religious zealotry can drive a person to simultaneously believe they are supporting all that is good, Christian and moral, while acting in a way that is completely contrary to any Christian ethic as I understand it.
In the vast scheme of things, perhaps, Lennon’s sins are minor. But, taken to its nth degree, it is this kind of flawed and dangerous reasoning that drives religious zealots to believe that God not only wants them to fly planes into buildings, he will reward them for it.
On Thursday, 2 May, this year, Greens MP, Cate Faehrmann, introduced her Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill to the NSW Parliament. The Bill is due to be debated on Thursday, 23 May. Ms Faehrmann’s Bill is similar to the Death with Dignity Act which has seen physician assisted dying operate safely and successfully in Oregon since 1997.
The day before she presented her Bill to the NSW Legislative Council, Ms Faehrmann convened a private briefing for members of the NSW Parliament and their staff. This was not a public forum; members of the general public were not invited and entry was – or should have been – by invitation only.
As attendees mingled prior to the briefing, Richard Mills, President of Dying with Dignity NSW, was in a circle comprising Cate Faehrmann and invited speakers, Dr Chris Ryan and Dr David Leaf. Richard put out his hand to introduce himself to a blonde woman nearby. She, in turn, introduced herself to the group as Catherine, an adviser (parliamentary terminology for a staffer) for Dominic Perrottet, the member for Castle Hill.
But, as it turns out, this was not the truth at all.
Subsequently, it became apparent that this person was Dr Catherine Lennon, a Catholic pro-life activist and president of the quasi-religious lobby group Doctors for the Family. Dr Lennon mentioned none of this when she introduced herself to Ms Faehrmann et al; and, for good reason. Dr Lennon is not a member of Mr Perrottet’s staff, nor had she been invited, in her own right, to attend the private briefing. Effectively, she was a gate-crasher.
NSW Labor MLC, Helen Westwood, who attended the briefing but was not privy to Ms Lennon’s introduction, explains why Dr Lennon’s presence at the parliamentary briefing is a matter for concern.
“If Dr Lennon did misrepresent herself as a staff member of a serving member of parliament (MP), her credibility as an honest broker of information in this debate must be damaged. Also, I am concerned that if she misrepresented herself that her actions jeopardise the future of Members’ briefings.
MPs are invited to attend Members’ briefings on the understanding that these are not a forum open to the public or the media, they are organised on the basis of an information session where MPs can hear from experts and ask questions that will assist them in understanding the Bill/Policy that they will be voting on without fear of having their comments/questions reported.
It allows for a free flow on information and can be very helpful to MPs in fulfilling their responsibilities to their constituency. I am concerned that MPs will be reluctant to attend Members briefings on these very controversial & polarising issues in the future if they believe their participation/attendance can be used as a weapon against them by members of the public with their own political agenda.”
Dr Lennon’s deception would not have become apparent if she had been content to quietly attend the meeting, take her notes and report back to the religious activists she was really representing. But religious zealotry is, by nature, neither quiet nor subtle.
After she left the briefing, Dr Lennon made two telephone calls to the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) to complain, in ‘very aggressive’ tones, that Dr Leaf had made a statement to the effect that all emergency specialists are trained in euthanasia – the implication being that the college trains doctors to kill people.
That is, of course, untrue, Dr Leaf had said nothing of the kind and had not mentioned the college in his presentation.
It was a spiteful move on Dr Lennon’s part and one designed, specifically, to damage Dr Leaf professionally.
Not content with that, Dr Lennon then wrote a diatribe (Catherine Lennon – Email to NSW Parliament), specifically targeting Dr Leaf, which she emailed to every MLC in NSW. The email is potentially defamatory and chock-full of misleading propaganda about voluntary euthanasia.
Hearing of this bizarre train of events, I decided to find out more about the mysterious Dr Lennon. Why had she introduced herself as a staffer for the member for Castle Hill when it was clear that she was, in fact, a Sydney GP and pro-life activist?
Following a long telephone conversation with Mr Perrottet, the member for Castle Hill, I was able to establish that Dr Lennon is not an ‘adviser’, not a member of his staff, but his sister-in-law.
In his conversations with me and, later with Dr Leaf, Mr Perrottet was adamant that Dr Lennon was not a member of his staff, he had not asked her to attend the briefing on his behalf, nor did she have his permission to represent herself as his proxy.
Mr Perrottet clearly hadn’t asked for an ‘adviser’ to attend the meeting on his behalf – he told me he had no interest in the Bill.
Later, speaking to Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, Mr Perrottet said he had spoken to Dr Lennon and she admitted to him that she had represented herself at the meeting as his ‘adviser’.
I would love to be a fly on the wall at the next Perrottet/Lennon family gathering!
One has to marvel at the zealotry which rationalises, not only using a family member’s position to deceptively gain entry to a private gathering, but in so doing, exposing that innocent kinsman to political embarrassment.
Dr Lennon’s post-briefing email to MPs is a study in Catholic pro-life propaganda.
As Cate Faehrmann says:
“It seems that nothing is beyond the religious right to block reform so desperately wanted by the vast majority of the community, including wrecking the careers of doctors who support voluntary euthanasia law reform. Their tactics often include lying and deception yet they seem to get away with this time and time again. It’s disgraceful and they need to be called on it every time they do it.”
Well, Cate, I’m calliing it.
In her email, to MPs, Dr Lennon is keen to capitalise on the credibility inherent in her professional standing as a doctor, but curiously fails to disclose her other interests. Nowhere does Dr Lennon mention her position as President of the dogma-driven Doctors for the Family.
Neither does she admit to being a founder and board member, (along with husband, Richard), of Matercare Australia – a non-profit Catholic organisation which specifically enjoins medical professionals to act as ‘prophetic witnesses’ “by reflecting on the teaching and practice of contemporary maternal health care in the light of the Gospel and its values most recently presented in the Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae”.
In short, in writing to NSW MPs, Dr Lennon fails to disclose an important vested interest: it is clear that, in all things medical, she answers, primarily, to the doctrines of the Catholic Church and the teachings of the Pope. One wonders if she discloses that to her patients?
Throughout her email to MPs, Catherine Lennon nonchalantly tosses about claims and statistics torn ruthlessly from their contexts. I have a mental image of Dr Lennon, Ophelia-like, madly but merrily tearing petals off flowers and casting them adrift in the stream.
This is a favourite strategy of pro-life religious campaigners. The academic and medical articles which report on these issues are complex. Often, the terms used – such as ‘involuntary euthanasia’, ‘non-voluntary euthanasia’ and ’euthanasia without explicit request’– are not what they seem to the uninformed reader and this is expertly exploited.
In fact, in her email, Dr Lennon misuses the term ‘involuntary euthanasia’ (which is always illegal) when what she means is ‘non-voluntary euthanasia’. Euthanasia without explicit request (non-voluntary euthanasia) is not ideal, but unbiased studies recognise that it is sometimes unavoidable if the best interests of the patient are to be served.
A doctor or academic well-versed in the literature on voluntary euthanasia would not make this basic error. It is a propagandist’s strategy to use an emotive term that is easily misunderstood by those not familiar with the terminology.
Dr Lennon complains that, during the Parliamentary briefing, neither Dr Leaf nor Dr Ryan “gave any factual evidence, medical references or accurate statistics”.
It’s rather difficult to provide bibliographic references in a short presentation. But Dr Leaf’s 2012 article on the safety of voluntary euthanasia legislation around the world, published in the British Medical Journal, provides a number of informative references on this subject.
Conversely, email lends itself perfectly to hyperlinks and bibilographic references, yet Dr Lennon’s email provides no usable links or academic sources to help MPs check the validity of her claims.
She alleges, for example, that, according to “the Journal of Geriatric Internal Medicine Feb 2008”, “most doctor assisted suicides in Oregon were NOT requested due to physical pain but most were due to “existential” suffering and some patients were physically healthy.”
Why does Dr Lennon fail to provide the name of this study or its authors?*
The statement is, technically, true but, by omitting the context of this factoid, Dr Lennon cleverly gives the false impression that otherwise healthy patients in Oregon are being euthanised, simply because they are depressed. That is categorically untrue and a scandalous misrepresentation of the data.
The question of course, (which Dr Lennon neatly evades) is not who asks for voluntary euthanasia, but who receives it. Yes, it is true that the majority of patients who take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity legislation say they are less concerned about physical pain and more concerned about loss of autonomy (93.5%), decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (92.2%), and loss of dignity (77.9%).
However, under Oregon law, a patient may request a prescription for a lethal medication on the basis of their ‘existential suffering’ until the cows come home but, unless they are terminally ill, mentally competent, and have less than six months to live, there’s not a doctor in Oregon who can legally oblige.
It’s passing strange that Dr Lennon did not think it was important to make this clarification in her email to MPs.
Adding to her campaign of misinformation, Dr Lennon accuses Dr Leaf of failing “to acknowledge that most patients asking for lethal injections or other forms of assisted suicide actually have depression which affects their cognition and usually responds well to treatment and support”.
In fact, under Ms Faehrmann’s proposed legislation, all terminally ill patients seeking assisted dying must have a psychiatric assessment. As in Oregon, if you suffer from depression which affects your cognition, you would not be eligible under the legislation before the NSW Parliament.
The kindest interpretation of the many howlers in Dr Lennon’s email to MPs is that she has cut and pasted propaganda from pro-life bloggers such as Alex Schadenberg (Executive Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, a Canadian Roman Catholic pressure group) and Paul Russell (formerly Senior Officer of The Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide’s “Office of Family and Life”) but has not bothered to go back to the source documents. For someone who is academically trained, this is unforgivable.
A more cynical interpretation might be that Dr Lennon read the source documents, but wilfully chose to misrepresent them in order to make her case; knowing, full well, that most MPs are too busy or simply not interested enough to plough through pages of academic, medical and government reports to verify her claims. In other words, she is trying to play NSW MLCs for fools.
Whatever the reason, there is so much that is wrong in Dr Lennon’s email to members of the NSW Parliament, it’s hard to know where to start.
For example, Dr Lennon cites the Remmelink Report as evidence that, “in The Netherlands, legislation similar to that being proposed to the NSW parliament, resulted in a high number of patients being killed by involuntary euthanasia”. Conveniently, Dr Lennon fails to provide the bibliographic reference which would show MPs that the Remmelink Report was tabled in 1991 – 22 years ago!
Similarly, Dr Lennon fails to mention that the Remmelink study was undertaken 10 years before the introduction of the current voluntary euthanasia legislation in the Netherlands. The problems identified in Remmelink, are problems addressed by the subsequent Dutch legislation – not problems arising from it. In short, Remmelink provided a pre-legislation ‘baseline study’ by which the success of subsequent legislation could be measured.
Feigning concern about high rates of what she erroneously terms ‘involuntary euthanasia’ in Europe, what Dr Lennon doesn’t tell NSW MLCs is that, following the experiences of the Netherlands and Belgium, introducing voluntary euthanasia legislation is more likely to reduce deaths [p.6] ‘without explicit request’ than increase them.
In her email, Dr Lennon complains that, while speaking about the use of Nembutal, Dr Leaf omitted to mention the current case of Erin Berg who “took Nebutal [sic] as instructed by Dr Phillip Nitchke’s [sic] book (and spoke on the phone to him) … had excruciating side effects and died after 10 days in intensive care.”
From Dr Lennon’s tortuous account, it sounds like Erin Berg rang Dr Nitschke, received instructions on where to buy and how to administer Nembutal, and acted under his medical supervision, doesn’t it?
In fact, Ms Berg contacted Dr Nitschke’s Exit International wanting to attend a workshop, but once she ‘came clean’ about her condition and psychiatric background she was told that Exit couldn’t help her.
Dr Lennon knows this. Dr Nitschke was recorded on video last year, publicly correcting Dr Lennon on this point, yet she continues to wilfully misrepresent his involvement in her tirades against voluntary euthanasia.
The case of Erin Berg’s death is far more complex than Dr Lennon suggests and is currently being investigated by the West Australian coroner. Rather than Dr Nitschke being to blame, it seems the focus is on failures of the WA mental health system. Ms Faehrmann’s legislation will not facilitate psychiatric patients taking a plane to Mexico, buying Nembutal from some back street veterinarian, and taking the drug – and possibly, other drugs – unsupervised, in a hotel room!
Ms Berg’s death was tragic, but it was suicide, not voluntary euthanasia. It bears no relation to the carefully monitored, closely scrutinized system of voluntary euthanasia proposed in Ms Faehrmann’s bill.
It is disingenuous of Dr Lennon to conflate Ms Berg’s death with Ms Faehrmann’s bill and, in fact, Ms Berg’s sisters have said publicly that, despite what happened to their sister, they are not opposed to a person’s right to choose a peaceful death. It is, therefore, exploitative and opportunistic for Dr Lennon to keep dragging Erin Berg into the voluntary euthanasia debate – especially before the Coroner’s report is in.
As I researched Dr Lennon, it became clear that her propaganda filled email and her attack on Dr Leaf is not uncharacteristic. She ‘has form’.
Dr Nitschke’s experience with Dr Lennon is similar to Dr Leaf’s. Asked to debate Dr Lennon by the City Bible College last year, Dr Nitschke found she favoured personal attacks over an honest debate on the research and evidence relating to voluntary euthanasia. Dr Lennon’s attack on Dr Nitschke was so unseemly and aggressive that the embarrassed convenors of the debate, the City Bible College, later apologised to Dr Nitschke for inadvertently placing him in that position.
According to Nitschke, “Although the Erin Berg issue did annoy me at the City Bible Forum, I think it was Lennon’s intimate knowledge of the first AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency) inquiry [into Dr Nitschke’s fitness to hold medical registration] that had just been launched that was of most concern to me at the time. Indeed it is this seeming close association between AHPRA and the Christian Right that continues to worry me, with their involvement in the second (concurrent) enquiry.”
Dr Lennon also made something of a name for herself in her previous role as medical spokesperson for Australians Against RU486. Bioethicist, Dr Leslie Cannold, encountered Dr Lennon during a radio interview on ABC’s Australia Talks Back, during the debate over the drug which has since been approved for use in Australia. Dr Lennon was given to referring colourfully to RU486 as ‘human pesticide’.
Dr Cannold told me that her encounter with Dr Lennon was “the only time I ever ‘lost it’ during the whole campaign.”
The transcript of the debate is unavailable, but Dr Cannold recalls saying something to the effect of, “For God’s sake, Catherine, you’re a doctor – you at least have to stray somewhere near the truth!”
Cannold says she was shocked and distraught that Dr Lennon was, “trading on being a medical professional but so unconstrained by medical fact.”
Dr Lennon was the medical adviser for the book, A Consumer’s Guide to the pill and other drugs, by pharmacist, John Wilks. According to a gushing review of the book on Amazon, Mr Wilks (in agreement with the Vatican and, presumably in concert with his ‘medical adviser’, Dr Lennon) argues that condoms are ineffective in preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS and STDs and in preventing pregnancy. Another, less enthusiastic, reviewer brands the book, ‘thinly disguised pro-life drivel’.
I’ll leave the last word on Dr Lennon and her ilk to Dr Leslie Cannold. During our telephone conversation, Dr Cannold reflected:
“There seems to be a subset of Christian activists who seem to believe that the means justifies the end. Their own internal conversations with each other basically have the same element that radical movements have – that any means are acceptable in order to achieve the end which, they believe, is moral. It’s particularly misleading for the public when the person uses the title, ‘Doctor’, in front of their name, but pays no regard to fact or truth.”
If you’re in NSW and you like this article, you might like to send the link to your local MLC.
* Richard Mills, President of Dying with Dignity NSW has subsequently located the article referred to by Dr Lennon. It is, in fact, from the Journal of General Internal Medicine (not Geriatric Medicine as stated by Dr Lennon). It is by Linda Ganzini et al., and the link is “Why Oregon Patients Request Assisted Death: Family Members’ Views”.
That link provides only the summary – but even the summary shows how Ms Lennon cherry-picks information from articles, failing to mention the parts which don’t support her argument. As noted above, it’s important to remember PAD (patient assisted dying) is only available to patients who are terminally ill with less than six months to live.
“According to family members, the most important reasons that their loved ones requested PAD, all with a median score of 4.5 or greater, were wanting to control the circumstances of death and die at home, and worries about loss of dignity and future losses of independence, quality of life, and self-care ability. No physical symptoms at the time of the request were rated higher than a median of 2 in importance. Worries about symptoms and experiences in the future were, in general, more important reasons than symptoms or experiences at the time of the request. According to family members, the least important reasons their loved ones requested PAD included depression, financial concerns, and poor social support.”
Activist dead wrong on voluntary euthanasia (with Dr David Leaf)
Safe Laws on assisted dying are working worldwide – Dr David Leaf, British Medical Journal
Voluntary euthanasia and the religious right – Dr Jennifer Wilson, No Place for Sheep
Chrys Stevenson BA (Hons I), is a Queensland-based freelance writer, blogger, speaker, researcher, historian and social activist. Chrys graduated from Griffith University in the late 1990s and was the recipient of the University Medal for Academic Excellence.
Chrys contributed the first chapter on the history of Australian atheism to Warren Bonnet’s (2010) The Australian Book of Atheism. Since then, she has been published widely in various online journals.
Chrys was the keynote speaker at Dying with Dignity’s NSW 2010 AGM and Conference and, together with Dr Leaf, has written previously about the religious debate on voluntary euthanasia.
Chrys is the convenor of the Sunshine Coast Atheists.
She helped nurse her grandmother through Alzheimer’s and is now a carer for her 89 year old mother who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Chrys will be appearing at the Reality Bites Literary Festival in Cooroy on the Sunshine Coast at the end of July.