A Fight to the Death


Last month I attended ‘Separating Church and State: Keeping God out of Government’ at Melbourne University. The conference was jointly sponsor ed by the Australian National Secular Association, the Council of Australian Humanist Societies and the Rationalist Society of Australia. They had kindly asked me to talk about public funding of r eligious schools.

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There were many excellent presentations on such things as the effect of fundamentalist religions on the world, the lack of separation of Church and State in Australia, the tax privileges enjoyed by religious organisations, and the growth of religious influence on Australian Party politics.

However, it wasn’t the presenters who made the greatest impact on me.

I noticed that the average age of the large number of people who attended was over 60. Does this indicate that even secularism is an ageing issue and that young people are terminally disengaged from the world of ideas? Possibly, but my take on it is different.

This articulate and intelligent audience came to life whenever the issue of voluntary euthanasia was mentioned. Indeed, when one of the panel referred to it as ‘euthanasia’, they were energetically corrected from the floor and told to add the word ‘voluntary’.

Flying back from the conference, it began to dawn on me that voluntary euthanasia, while currently a sleeper issue that pops its head up from time to time, will inevitably be the issue on which the influence of churches and religion on supposedly secular governments is finally fought.

Think about it: we have two strong factors on a collision course. The first is a medical science community that seems to improve its ability to prolong life on a daily basis. People in the West have never lived for as long as they do today. This trend, despite obesity, diabetes and other current panics, seems likely to continue at least for the foreseeable future.

The second is the ageing of that troublesome and rebellious demographic the Baby Boomers some of whom have already passed their 60th birthday. Never a group to allow convention or tradition to stand in their way, does anyone honestly imagine that they are going to go ‘gentle into that good night’?

It is the Baby Boomers much vilified as they are who rewrote the book on women’s rights, Black power, gay rights, contraception, divorce, abortion and the whole sexual revolution.

Thanks to Emo.

When they reached the age where sex and procreation were their central concerns, they forced the changes they wanted, and most Western churches went along with it, willingly or not. Even the Catholics, while condemning it publicly, have quietly turned a blind eye to such practices particularly the oral contraceptive pill making no comment about the rapid decline in the number of children most Catholics now have.

The issue may not bite for another 10 years or so, as the Baby Boomers are by and large still vigorous and healthy, and death and decline are not something they very much want to think about yet. Having witnessed the athleticism of 62-year-olds Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at Telstra Stadium only a few months ago, I’d say some Boomers are holding age at bay very well indeed. (I wonder how many 62-year-olds from other generations have been injured falling out of a coconut tree?)

However, while medical science can increase length of life and even make the line between life and death so fuzzy that it is open to debate, it has not been quite so good at maintaining quality of life. The very fact that so many of us are living so much longer makes us much more likely to end up with some very unpleasant conditions.

The diseases of ageing Alzheimer’s, arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia, stroke, cancer, emphysema, pulmonary heart disease, etc are going to increase because so many more of us will get to be old.

The luckiest among us will drop dead of a heart attack on the golf course (or jiving to Jumping Jack Flash) or slip away in our sleep but most of us won’t. Most of us will get older, frailer and more miserable until we reach the point when we have had enough and want to turn our organism off.

And that is when the fight with the Church will begin.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, and some backsliding in religiously dominated countries like the US, the Church has largely lost the fight to keep God in control of birth. In the West, men and women now control whether and when they will reproduce, without having to give up the pleasures of sex, and that control is now so accepted as to have become unremarkable.

Within the next 10 to 20 years, the fight will be about who controls death.

The Howard Government has already seen the writing on the wall and has been quick to stamp out any suggestion that they will accept voluntary euthanasia. Their remarkably heavy-handed response in overturning the Northern Territory’s voluntary euthanasia legislation in 1997 was a good example. Their recent tightening of the laws restricting the right to gain information about suicide electronically is another.

But despite their best intentions, they cannot stamp it out entirely. Independent South Australian MP Bob Such is getting a Private Member’s Bill up on voluntary euthanasia as I write. Federal Parliamentary Health Secretary Christopher Pyne says he will do everything possible to scuttle the attempt even though the public have indicated in survey after survey that they are solidly in favour of legal voluntary euthanasia, as they were of contraception and abortion.

Anyone who has ever sat beside a dying relative or friend and watched them suffer tends to err on the side of mercy rather than defer to the power of someone else’s God.

Indeed, many of us already leave this earth helped along by a large and kindly dose of morphine and, I suspect, that is the way the Church would like it to stay. They have always been prepared to accept the inevitable, as long as it is done on the quiet.

But they have reckoned without the Baby Boomers, who to their credit have never done anything quietly in their lives.

So don’t expect them to die quietly, either.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.