Sometimes a privilege that we take for granted carries a corresponding weight.
In 1988, the then-federal minister for arts and territories, Clyde Holding, commended the Australian Capital Territory Self-Government Bill with these words:
"This bill represents the most significant transfer of power, on a population basis, since Papua New Guinea became independent. It will allow 270,000 people the same democratic rights and social responsibilities as their fellow Australians."
This dual emphasis on rights and responsibilities recognises that in participating in the democratic process, we not only exercise our right to choose but also accept the responsibility of weighing how those choices affect the wellbeing of others.
In contrast, much of the current debate around the ACT's ability to make its own laws on euthanasia has focused on rights alone.
In their July 10 opinion piece in The Canberra Times, ACT Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne and NT Attorney-General Selena Uibo wrote: "As more and more states legislate for voluntary assisted dying, the persistence of this situation is increasingly untenable and indefensible.
"But it's more than that: it's an assault on territory citizens' democratic rights: on our human rights."
In the same vein, NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg was quoted the next day as saying that it's "illiberal" to deny the ACT the right to decide on euthanasia.
However, when matters of life and death are at stake, a "rights only" approach is rarely appropriate.
We've learned that during the current pandemic.
My "right" to wear or not wear a mask can't be considered in isolation from my responsibility to protect the wellbeing of my neighbour.
That's especially the case if they are particularly vulnerable to infection because of age or a pre-existing medical condition.
In the same way, my "right" to assisted dying can't be considered in isolation from my responsibility to others. As with Covid, this means recognising the vulnerabilities of particular groups.
Just a few years ago, the synod of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra received a report on legalised euthanasia from its Public Issues Commission.
The report noted that when it comes to considering the impact of such legislation, we can't assume that it will be the same for all of us. The undifferentiated decision-making individual of much liberal discourse is a myth. We are all shaped by our different experiences and the expectations of those around us.
So many women will experience conversations about euthanasia differently, because on average they have access to fewer economic resources in old age and because of social expectations that they be more sacrificial and less assertive.
Many Indigenous Australians will experience conversations about euthanasia differently, because past experience has left them understandably distrustful of non-Indigenous medicine and institutions.
Many people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds will experience conversations about euthanasia differently, because of their experience and expectation that major life decisions are made collectively.
Many people living with a disability will experience conversations about euthanasia differently, because of their experience of stigma and because of social expectations that living with dignity means being able to carry out personal acts of self-care oneself.
Many people working in the aged care and healthcare systems will experience conversations about euthanasia differently, because we have expected them to protect the lives of their patients - and often paid them poorly for it. Now we may be asking them to accept that in their workplace they and others will be asked to assist in ending those same lives.
For all these reasons, it is vital that the current debate moves beyond rights alone to encompass our responsibilities as well. In particular, we all bear a responsibility to consider the interests and perspectives of people whose life experience and background might be very different from our own.
Like many people, I have ethical concerns about the legalisation of assisted dying. Some of these concerns arise directly from my Christian faith. However at this time, I am concerned not just about what we might decide, but also about how we might go about making that decision.
I am convinced that when the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 14:7 "For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone," he expresses something that is true for all of us, not just believers.
If and when our community considers legislating on this important matter, my hope is that we will do so fully aware of the responsibilities we bear for each other. If the debate continues to engage at the level of territory and individual rights only, our society will be all the poorer for it. Even more, we will have failed to fully grasp the significance of what true self-government means.
- Mark Short is the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn.