New study shows a surge in support for assisted dying among religious Australians

Si Gladman / 23 May 2021

When Michael Dowling, a minister in the Uniting Church of South Australia, speaks in favour of voluntary assisted dying (VAD) as a compassionate option for the terminally ill, the vast majority of his congregation share his views.

In a presentation to parliamentarians in March, ahead of the debate in that state on the proposed reform, he sought to move beyond stereotypes and dispel the “myth of a monolithic Christian view” that asserts, for example, that all Christians oppose VAD, gay marriage and the decriminalisation of abortion.

“Such is not the case. Within the Christian faith, there is a wide variety of views on these subjects,”  said Michael, who was representing the group Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying when he spoke to the MPs.

While his Uniting Church in South Australia does not have a policy on VAD, surveys of religious Australians consistently show that those who identify with his denomination overwhelmingly support VAD.

A soon-to-be-released study into religiosity in Australia shows strong support among religious people for the legalisation of the end-of-life option for terminally-ill people.

In the Religiosity in Australia report, Neil Francis, a Research Fellow at the Rationalist Society of Australia, outlines how opposition to VAD has decreased significantly in the past few years, especially among those considered as religious ‘Regulars’ and ‘Devouts’.

Francis (pictured) presents a new model, called the Australian Religious Identity 6-Factor (ARI6) model, to provide insights into Australians’ relationship with personal faith and how people at different levels of religiosity view a range of issues.

His analysis uses a combination of the affiliation and behaviour measures to produce a model comprising six distinct religious segments of religiosity – from Rejecters and Socialisers, through Notionals and Occasionals, to Regulars and Devouts.

On the issue of VAD, support is found among a considerable majority of Rejecters (94%), Socialisers (84%), Notionals (90%) and Occasionals (80%) (see chart below).

Only among people considered Committeds – those consisting of Regulars, who have a religious affiliation and regularly attend religious services, and of Devouts, who frequently attend religious services – is there some opposition. Yet, even among Australia’s most religious, Devouts, only slightly more than one in three (35%) are opposed.  

Attitudes toward VAD by ARI6, 2019. Source: AES 2019

But, in comparing Australian Election Study (AES) data from 2016-19, Francis has identified movement towards stronger support for lawful VAD, even among those with the highest levels of religiosity. 

Compared with the AES 2016 results, in 2019 there was a net movement across the board towards support for lawful VAD, including increases of 8% and 9% among Regulars and Devouts respectively.

Francis’ research undermines the claims of some religious clerics that they’re speaking on behalf of their church communities when they sit down for a conversation with government decision-makers.

When Catholic leaders such as Queensland Archbishop Mark Coleridge and Bishop Tim Harris speak out against VAD, they step out of line with not just mainstream opinion but the vast majority of the worshippers in their own pews.

In 2019, 74% of Catholics said they supported VAD, while only 15% opposed. In the three years between the AES studies, support for VAD grew 12% among Catholics.

After Labor won re-election in Queensland last year, Bishop Harris wrote to MPs on behalf of the 80,000 Catholics in his Townsville diocese to caution against supporting the reform.

“But analysis of 2019 VoteCompass data based on 6,766 respondents across his own diocese…reveal that 81% of its voters support VAD law reform, including 79% of his own Catholic constituents,” writes Francis.

“Just 8% of all diocesan voters, and 11% of diocesan Catholic voters, oppose VAD. The evidence suggests that Catholic bishops either haven’t listened to their own congregation, or listened only to those who agree with them.”

Hear from Mike Gaffney MLC about his journey of seeing voluntary assisted dying legalised in Tasmania when he presents at the next RSA Webinar on Wednesday 26 May 2021. To attend, register here

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

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