Ian Wood is the National Co-ordinator of the Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying. Here we talk about his background, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Ian Wood: I grew up in what I think of as a typical middle class suburb of Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. Our street had a number of children my age or younger. My parents both played the violin, having met as music students at Adelaide University. My father later qualified as an accountant, and that was his work until he died of a heart attack when I was not quite 14 years old. Although my father had played the organ at a nearby church, my sister and I did not attend any church but were brought up with Christian values.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated, been an autodidact?
Wood: I was educated in the public school system for 7 years, then Scotch
College (Presbyterian) for 4 years, then completed my Diploma in Pharmacy at Adelaide University in a 4 year course. In addition I did some evening classes in woodwork and motor mechanics, because I restored a 1926 Willys Overland car, converting it into a timber framed delivery van, and wanted to do my own maintenance. Since my involvement with Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying I have done a lot of research into the arguments used against VAD to self educate myself, but I would not call myself an autodidact!
Jacobsen: How did you come to find Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying?
Wood: My interest in Voluntary Euthanasia, as we called it then, started in 2004, when my beautiful, formerly vibrant and articulate Mother was dying, essentially from starvation, after nearly 8 years with Alzheimer’s. By this stage she was totally unaware of her surroundings, doubly incontinent, dead in mind and just alive in body. I thought there had to be a better way of dying, and there is.
Some years later I read a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI to some American Bishops saying that killing in a war, or capital punishment could be justified, but never an assisted death! I said to Rev Trevor Bensch, at the church I attended in North Adelaide, South Australia, that I had a problem with that theology. He agreed that it was illogical and inconsistent. Later again, in 2009, Rev Bensch, based on his experiences as a hospital chaplain, and I, co-founded Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia to give the majority of Christians who do support VE and Voluntary Assisted Dying, a voice to counter the vocal but powerful minority who oppose choice on religious grounds. I am just now starting to implement a name change of our group to Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying, to reflect the current terminology being used on the issue in discussion and in Australian legislation recently passed in our state of Victoria.
The final factor influencing my decision to become public was a photo of a woman, Chantal Sebire, pleading with the French President for access to an assisted death. Chantal suffered from a very rare nasal cancer.
She first lost her sense of smell and taste, and then as the tumour evolved it ate into her jaws, before attacking the eye socket. leaving her blind with one eye protruding from her head. Chantal described “atrocious bouts of pain that can last up to four hours at a time”. A reaction to morphine and its derivatives denied her normal pain relief. This photo continues to motivate me.
Jacobsen: As the National Co-ordinator, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Wood: My role is all encompassing, from lobbying MPs, writing letters and media releases, posting comments on Facebook, maintaining contact with our group members and our membership list. I have a small group of people I depend on for input and advice.
Jacobsen: From the Christian denomination in which you’re theologically situated, what is the theological argument, or are the arguments, for voluntary assisted dying?
Wood: We believe that the essential message of Jesus is one of love and compassion. We believe that no person should have to endure futile agonising suffering in an end of life situation, and that a loving God would not want us to endure it either. As the data collated by Palliative Care itself indicates, there are some people for whom only death will relieve their suffering, and as Christians we believe they should have that choice of assistance.
Obviously some Catholics still believe that suffering can be what they call redemptive, and we have no problem at all with that. A problem only arises when some church hierarchy use their beliefs to deny others their choice.
It is quite interesting to note how the format of religious opposition has changed over my 10 years of involvement. Initially it seemed to be stressing the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or more accurately, “Thou Shalt not Murder” aspect. This is quite easy to rebut, as to murder is to kill with malice, and that is not the case when a person is pleading for help to die. In addition, the Old Testament is awash with bloodshed, from the drowning of all but Noah and his family, to the genocide of the Midianites, as described in Numbers 31,7-9 & 17-18 to give just two examples.
The trend is now to omit any reference to the religious background behind this opposition, and instead to raise the ‘slippery slope’ argument. Those opposing assisted dying also often allege concerns about ‘vulnerable’ groups, the elderly and those with disabilities. These are valid concerns, and need to be asked, but all the evidence points to these concerns being unjustified and not supported by fact. It is simply scaremongering!
Yet they do not talk about a major group others consider truly vulnerable. I quote Dr Ken Hillman, Professor of intensive care at the University of NSW in Sydney, who says “Up to 70% of people now die in acute hospitals, surrounded by well meaning strangers, inflicting all that medicine has to offer; often resulting in a painful, distressing and degrading end to their life.” and “Clinicians themselves are often complicit in refusing to face the inevitability of dying and death.”.
Jacobsen: From a human rights and social health perspective, and personal autonomy view, what is the argument, or are the arguments, for voluntary assisted dying?
Wood: Scott, I could fill a whole book on the arguments for voluntary assisted dying from the aspects you list here!
Some dot points are –
– Human rights – The Canadian Supreme Court stated: “The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice”
– Social health – Being accepted for an assisted death perhaps paradoxically seems to enable a person to live longer and have a better end quality of life. It is palliative in its own right in that it removes the fear a person has about how they might die badly.
– Personal autonomy – We make decisions all our lives that affect our health, well being, finances and all aspects of our lives, and to quote theologian Hans Kung : “ ….. [men and women ] have the responsibility for making a conscientious decision about the manner and time of their deaths. This is a responsibility which neither the state nor the church, neither a theologian nor a doctor, can take away.”
Jacobsen: What have been some of the successes and honest failure of Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying in its work advocating for voluntary assisted dying?
Wood: Some of the successes of our group would include being invited to make submissions to Government Inquiries into End of Life Care in Victoria and Western Australian with a followup request to be interviewed, so I would like to think we contributed in some small way to the passing of the Victorian VAD legislation. I have been invited to speak at WFRTDS Conferences in Victoria and in Chicago in 2014. We have been quoted as Christians in support of VAD on many occasions in various state parliaments.
As an example of a failure I would cite my recent attempt to rebut the position against VAD adopted by the nearby Anglican Synod for the Canberra Goulburn Diocese. Their lead person was exhorting the Anglicans to “Choose life”! Clearly “choosing life” is impossible for a person dying from a terminal illness with acute unbearable futile suffering! I sent out a paper to the 60 or so churches in the Diocese setting out rational Christian support for VAD. I did have one response, but not one person took the trouble to actually talk through the points I raised. They just do not want to know the facts! I feel sure not one Minister canvassed their congregations for their views. Regrettably many churches in similar fashion chose to ignore the fact that there were paedophile priests in their midst, and to deal with them. Church leaders have the effrontery to lecture us all on human dignity and the sanctity of life, when evidence recently given by countless victims of paedophile priests clearly shows the abyss and total lack of understanding by the Catholic and Anglican Church for the suffering endured by those victims. Many of these victims went on to take their own lives in dreadful circumstances in a cruel irony compared with the Church position against voluntary assisted dying.
Of course this unwillingness to adapt to change has been a feature of the patriarchal religions, particularly when it comes to recognising the rights of women – the right to vote, own property, control their reproduction, qualify and work as doctors and lawyers etc. Yet some religious leaders and progressive churches have been at the forefront of advocating such change. How many of us are aware that Right Rev W Inge, the former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London, UK, was a founding member of the British Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society as far back as 1935?
Some of your readers may be surprised to learn that a substantial majority of Australians who designate themselves as Christian support VAD from the religious aspect, as well as the human rights and personal autonomy point of view. There is similar Christian support in Canada. It can be hard to get this Christian support more well known to the public when media tend to contact, in the first instance, outspoken church hierarchy who are against compassionate choice.
Jacobsen: Who have been important allies in the world for voluntary assisted dying becoming more legal in more contexts and more socially accepted in more environments within Australia?
Wood: Some allies in the religious area have been outstanding in their support and guidance. The late Revd John Murray from New Zealand contacted me early in 2009. Rev Trevor Bensch, group co-founder, and our Patron Rev Dr Craig de Vos have been influential. Others recognised internationally have been Lord Carey, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa. https://christiansforve.org.au/archbishop-desmond-tutu-gives-his-blessing-to-the-voluntary-assisted-dying-campaign-in-australia/#more-371
Recently we have allies in support giving sermons on VAD, including Rev Scott McKenna in Scotland, Rev Craig Kilgour in NZ and Rev Glynn Cardy also in NZ. Canon Rosie Harper in UK is another – her uncle had an assisted death in Switzerland Rosie describes as ‘beautiful’.
I would cite Victorian Dr Rodney Syme as a person and a friend who has had enormous positive influence in the Australian debate leading to the Victorian legislation being passed. He challenged the law by publicly stating he had given patients who were dying the means to be in complete control of their suffering. Dr Roger Hunt, a palliative care expert in South Australia who has been advocating VAD legislation as a compassionate additional option of good palliative care is an outstanding example. Prof. Jan Bernheim, Belgium, has been very helpful with advice. Media personality Andrew Denton is another person, with his GoGentle Australia, as is Neil Francis with his website DyingforChoice. Another example of an ally is Margaret W from South Australia. Margaret has a friend in Canada who regularly posts her news clippings relating to the progress of MAID in Canada, and Margaret in turn posts them to me – often including a $20 donation towards our group expenses. (Membership is free) So I have been kept up to date with movement towards legislation, first in Quebec, then in all Canada. Allies such as Margaret are truly inspirational! There are many others too numerous to list here.
Jacobsen: If individuals have an interest, how can they become involved with Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying?
Wood: While we are an Australian group, we do have members in support of our aims particularly from New Zealand and some other overseas countries. We would welcome folk from Canada who support our aims. The easiest way to become involved is to look at our website https://christiansforve.org.au/ People can join the group through that site if they wish, and also read our News Posts.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Wood: I believe Christian support for VAD can be summed up in the two final paragraphs of a sermon by Rev Craig Kilgour of New Zealand. Craig describes the circumstances around the assisted death of his nephew in Canada and his own support for VAD/MAID. I found it very moving and I truly believe all readers of Canadian Atheist would feel the same.
To quote Craig: “Let me finish this with what my family members said and repeated often using these words about my nephew’s death: It was compassionate, it was humane, it was right and good. And the family are very proud and humbled with the courage he showed in his battle with cancer. And to me no one has the right to be critical and judgemental of the choice he made.
So for me and my family this is not a philosophical debate, it is not a theological debate, it is not a theoretical debate, it is a reality and it was right and my nephew was fortunate he lived in Canada.”
Read the full sermon here > https://christiansforve.org.au/rev-craig-kilmour-new-zealand-sermon-my-nephew-had-an-assisted-death-in-canada-it-was-compassionate-it-was-humane-it-was-right-and-good/#more-498
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ian.
Wood: Thank you, Scott, for the opportunity to present my point of view.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Image Credits: Ian Wood.