As elsewhere in the West, the churches here have long been fighting a rearguard action to maintain their dominance and hegemony. But this is no easy task with an ever-growing list of clerical retreats and regroupings in response to an increasingly secular but nonetheless conservative Australia.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is making clear that the right of churches to operate above the secular law is no longer acceptable.
For decades, abortion law reform has liberated women from backstreet abortionists. Contraception and sex education are now widely available. Homosexuality has been decriminalised. We are getting closer and closer to affording full recognition to same-sex marriage – with the ALP about to vote on whether this is an issue of discrimination rather than a matter of conscience. Civil celebrant marriage is now almost as common as church weddings and baptisms are in rapid decline. Divorce and marriage breakdown are no longer a cause for social ostracism – with even the British royal family valuably modelling change. All of these freedoms have already occurred, yet the sky has not fallen down!
The new Siegfried Line for the churches is death. Their troops are dug in at the nation's hospices, cemeteries and crematoria. Their mantra is that the chapel and the blessing open death's door to an eternal afterlife and that family and friends can draw comfort from the belief that their loved one is heaven-bound. While many Christians may still believe this to be true, the churches continue to demand that such comfort comes at a hefty price.
Sadly, these days the dying pay the highest price. This is because the still powerful churches advocate and indeed demand a militant "NO" to voluntary euthanasia – regardless of the needless suffering inflicted on the dying.
The dying are denied the choice of a peaceful, respectful and pain-free passage through death's door because the churches hold that such killing is wrong. Not all killing is opposed, of course, just that of assisting the dying who choose voluntary euthanasia for themselves. No hospice care for them – unless they give up their wish to die peacefully when they rationally decide that they have suffered enough.
The position of the churches is adamant. God doesn't like it. Moreover, voluntary euthanasia would be the thin end of the wedge.
The thin end of the wedge to what?
Most likely, the churches fear that, because a vast majority of our population support voluntary euthanasia, this might be translated into a great many Australians opting for voluntary euthanasia when they decide their time to cease suffering has come.
But what would be wrong with citizens choosing how to live their lives right up to death? Most people are free to question the church's teaching, to choose with whom we have sex, to use a condom or not, or to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But despite the fact that Newspoll found in 2012 that 77 per cent of Catholics supported law reform to allow medically assisted dying for the terminally ill, the Catholic Church tells its adherents that they are not allowed to have a choice. Worse, they argue that no one, regardless of their faith, should have that choice.
The institutional churches may be offended by our hard-won sexual and other freedoms. But so what? True believers are still free to follow church law, as the rest of us are free not to.
Voluntary euthanasia will not be problem-free, but as grown-ups we know this and have the ability to craft laws with sufficient checks and balances to minimise any potential abuse of medically assisted dying. As with heterosexual and homosexual freedoms, Australians understand that freedoms come with individual and community responsibilities.
As abortion law reform did in some maternity hospitals, voluntary euthanasia may see some church groups withdraw their engagement with hospice care that runs counter to their core beliefs. But, most likely, there will be compromise and accommodation with different viewpoints. Enacting voluntary euthanasia laws that do not require those healthcare staff who ethically object to assist in the practice of voluntary euthanasia would be a great help.
This legislated right of objection should more than satisfy the Australian Medical Association and at the same time pull them back from trespassing on the domain of their clerical compadres.
Yes, some churches may still refuse to bless or to bury people who have chosen an assisted death. This is their right and people who opt for voluntary euthanasia will no doubt consider this as they exercise their right to choose.
The reality is that, as they always have done in changing times, the churches will survive the introduction of voluntary euthanasia laws, just as they are surviving the revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The churches are far stronger than they sometimes seem to believe. And, when all is said and done, they will continue to tell us that they go forwards – with God on their side.
What is needed now is for all political parties to extend freedom to the dying. But just allowing a conscience vote on voluntary euthanasia is not enough. This is because, historically, our parliamentarians do not vote according to their conscience.
Witness that, in recent years, not a single Liberal or National Party MP voted for voluntary euthanasia bills in Tasmania or NSW. Either they really are unrepresentative swill or something other than conscience (try political self-interest) determined their vote.
A large majority of voters from all parties and faith groups, as well as from the growing band of atheists and agnostics, want the freedom to decide for themselves.
We are sick to death of politicians telling us how we should die.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald's memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic's Journey is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.