How the religious hide their true identity

Neil Francis / 15 September 2020

If you’re wondering how religious the organised opposition to voluntary assisted dying (VAD) law reform is, current ructions in Tasmania provide a marvellous petri dish of evidence.

Catholic church call to arms

Back in 2011, the now Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, wrote a lengthy, deliberative editorial against VAD, calling on the church to enlist people with no obvious religious connections to help the church fight VAD law reform. He wrote:

“The man or woman in the street … may well be open to persuasion that permissive laws and practices cannot be effectively narrowed to such circumstances”; and

“We need to research and propose new messages and carefully consider who should deliver them, where and how.”

He went on to describe how various doctor, patient, lawyer, indigenous, disability and palliative care specialist groups might be corralled into this public relations campaign. (Nowhere in this musing did he reflect that the church’s expectations of VAD calamity themselves might actually be queried or tested.)

Despite this, when promoting anti-VAD messages, he argued, “we do not have to hide our religious petticoats altogether.”

However, this standard of transparency seems to have been abandoned in recent years.

Pop-up group “Live & Die Well”

Take the Tasmanian pop-up group Live & Die Well, for example. Convened just six weeks ago for the sole and express purpose of defeating Tasmanian MLC Michael Gaffney’s VAD bill, its website doesn’t mention religion… at all. No identified religious connections nor religious arguments of any kind. Meticulously absent.

Indeed, the anti-VAD campaigning pamphlet the group puts about expressly advises folks when writing to their MPs, “DO NOT use religious arguments”.

That’s quite curious given the religious backing of the group, headed by Mr Ben Smith.

The Catholic church gets busy

Who is Mr Smith? He’s the Director of the Life, Marriage and Family Office at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hobart. He reports directly to Archbishop Julian Porteous.

Unsurprisingly, core attributes given in the 2017 job advertisement for which Mr Smith was the successful applicant, require deep knowledge of the Catholic church, unquestioning support for its doctrines, and “highly-developed communication skills” to promote the church’s agenda.

And, Messrs Smith and Porteous’ arguments are strikingly similar, as I’ve revealed previously.

Does Mr Smith declare this on the Live & Die Well website? Nope. He’s just a “resident of Hobart”.

And the other “leaders”?

The other three “team leaders” at Live & Die Well are Mrs Patricia Gartlan, Mrs Karen Dickson, and Mr Daniel Bosveld.

Mrs Gartlan is a recipient of the Catholic church’s Knights of the Southern Cross National Award for services to the “sanctity of life”. (Recently, her “team leader” entry has been removed from the website.)

Mrs Karen Dickson is Chair of Mothers of Pre-Schoolers (MOPS) Australia, a Christian fellowship group. She’s previously campaigned against same-sex adoption, which she opined is against God’s will and would result in inevitable “moral decay” and the destruction of “the very foundations upon which society is built”. Predictably, she’s also actively campaigned against marriage equality, likening it to “dropping a brick on your foot”.

Mr Bosveld is a university student (most likely protestant) and President of LifeChoice Tasmania, a tiny student group promoting the “life from conception through [to] natural death” position. His Facebook page “Likes” more than 20 Christian groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby.

Look… over there!

The extent to which Live & Die Well exquisitely attempts to paper over its religious petticoat is exemplified by the inclusion of two articles purporting to strengthen the non-religious case against VAD law reform.

The first is a piece republished from Spectator Australia, in which an atheist says he opposes VAD law reform. Of course there are non-religious people who oppose VAD law reform: but robust survey evidence shows that they’re rare, and that in fact strong opposition is strongly correlated with high religiosity. Nor are there teams of atheists actively organising others, as the churches are, to oppose law reform.

The second is an article by Mr Wesley J. Smith which tries to imply that opposition to VAD law reform is more widespread amongst humanists than it is. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. Remember them? They tried and failed to have “Intelligent design” (creationism with lipstick), taught as science in US schools.

I’ve had words to say about his misinformation and incoherent slippery slope nonsense herehere and here. Oh, and Live & Die Well omits the real publication date of the reproduced op-ed — which is more than a decade ago — presenting it as though it’s fresh and contemporary.

Another group

Another group that’s been actively and vocally opposing Mr Gaffney’s VAD bill is Health Professionals Say No.

A major newspaper ad against the bill was recently taken out in the group’s name. It was authorised by a certain Mr Ben Smith. Yes: that’s the same Mr Ben Smith who is Director of the Life, Marriage and Family Office at the Catholic Archdiocese of Hobart. And the authorisation address is… the Catholic diocesan centre of Hobart.

One might wonder who actually paid for the ad…

The who’s who

The group’s website advances the usual slippery slope conjectures, and promotes the video Fatal Flaws, produced by Canadian loyal Catholic, Mr Kevin Dunn. That’s the “documentary” that Go Gentle Ausralia’s Fatal Fraud(link is external) film exposes for its extensive religious connections, revealing how it employs emotional manipulation, fear, framing and omission to sow Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) in the minds of legislators and the public.

Prominent members of Health Professionals Say No include:

  • Prof. David Kissane, a Knight of Obedience to the (Catholic) Order of Malta.
  • Dr Maria Cogolini, a Catholic bioethicist.
  • Dr Megan Best, a Catholic bioethicist who got her facts fundamentally wrong.
  • Dr Douglas Bridge who has identified his “supreme Christian calling”.
  • Prof. John Murtagh who says medicine and Christian ethics are inextricably linked.
  • Prof. Ian Olver, a lay preacher.
  • Dr Peter Coleman who has called for “placing the Christian revelation at the centre of university education.”
  • Dr Peter Ravenscroft, past Chairman of the International Christian Medical & Dental Association.
  • Dr Anthony Herbert, former National Secretary of the Australian Christian Medical Fellowship.

Too many yet too few

It also includes Victorian, Dr Roger Woodruff. That’s significant because one of the group’s key claims is that people will feel unduly influenced to use VAD law, i.e. too many people will die from VAD. Yet Dr Woodruff previously published an opinion in the Journal of Palliative Medicine that the most striking feature of the VAD experience in Oregon is “almost total disinterest shown by the terminally ill” due to the small numbers of VAD compared to the number of cancer deaths.

So to sum up that approach: VAD mustn’t be legalised because too many people will use it, but it’s not worth legalising because too few people use it. Which is it? It can’t be both.

Avoiding the ad hominem fallacy

We should be sure not to reject arguments automatically just because they are made by religious people. People of faith have just as much right to be heard in the public square: otherwise one would be arguing special privileges for non-faith Australians. Standards for public discourse are necessary, however.

“Dig here”

The connection being made here is not to reject arguments because of the religion of the informant, but to identify where misinformation almost exclusively comes from. I’ve been writing about this for years, with exposés on deep religious misinformation like:

  • The Vatican claim that Dutch elderly supposedly go to Germany for medical treatment because they fear being euthanised in Dutch care homes (the claim causing a diplomatic crisis).
  • The Catholic church in Australia spreading grotesque propaganda about Belgium’s assisted dying practices, prompting a rare, savage rebuttal from the authors of the scientific study the church misrepresented.
  • The claim that a Council of Europe resolution “banned euthanasia” throughout Europe, when the resolution did no such thing.
  • Spreading the appalling conspiracy theory that 650 babies a year are euthanised in the Netherlands when no such thing happens.
  • Catholic Professor Margaret Somerville’s repeated claims, based on cherry-picked data, wrongly claiming suicide contagion from VAD laws, and loftily dismissing extensive evidential rebuttals.
  • A mathematical confection by Catholic bioethicist Dr David Jones and Catholic loyalist and economist Prof. David Paton to attempt to “prove” suicide contagion in Oregon, in which they committed ten deadly sins.
  • The above report being glowingly endorsed by a Catholic psychiatrist, Dr Aaron Kheriaty.
  • Catholic-backed Alex Schadenberg of the “Euthanasia Prevention Coalition” and Catholic “HOPE”‘s Branka van der Linden polemicising an article purporting to show ‘inhumane deaths’ under VAD, but which established no such thing. (“HOPE” was established by the Australian Family Association, a Catholic lobby group founded by Australia’s most famous lay Catholic, B. A. Santamaria).
  • Indefensible slippery slope argument from Dr Bernadette Tobin, Catholic ethicist and daughter of B. A. Santamaria.
  • Serious cherry-picking including the negation of cited source meaning, by Victorian Catholic MP, Mr Daniel Mulino, whose report is hosted online by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
  • Senior clerics of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne misinforming a parliamentary inquiry.

One could go on, but I think the point is amply made.

Conclusion

Public misinformation about VAD law reform and practice arises largely via organised religious commentators who coalesce and focus their efforts against parliamentary law reform bills.

Given how common misinformation about VAD can be from organised religious sources, it’s understandable that the public and legislators alike might simply ‘switch off’ if a commentator reveals a religious background.

It’s no surprise then that coordinated religious public relations efforts against VAD law reform try to look as non-religious and as broad-based as possible.

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With thanks to my friend Chrys Stevenson for contributing research details in this report regarding members of Health Professionals Say No.

Neil Francis is past president of the World Federation of Right To Die Societies, former chair of YourLastRight.com, a national alliance of Australian assisted dying societies, and past president of Dying With Dignity Victoria.
He maintains arguably the world's largest special-purpose database of peer-reviewed professional journal papers traversing all aspects of assisted dying.

All the more reason.

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