VietCatholic interviews Dr. Joseph Parkinson on Bioethics in Australia
Interview Rev. Dr. Joseph Parkinson, Director L J Goody Bioethics Centre Background Fr Joseph Parkinson completed undergraduate studies in philosophy and theology at St Charles Regional Seminary, Guildford WA and St Francis Xavier Seminary, Rostrevor SA between 1974 and 1980. After ordination to priesthood in March 1981 he was appointed to a number of parishes before commencing postgraduate studies in moral theology at the Alphonsianum in Rome in 1986. Working under Prof. Terry Kennedy CSsR, he attained a Licence in Theology summa cum laude in 1988. Fr Parkinson then served six years as Director of Youth Ministry in Perth, and two years as Dean of Studies at St Charles Seminary. In 1996 he resumed postgraduate research through the Alphonsianum and the University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle WA, and in 2002 was awarded a PhD with distinction for a thesis entitled Material Cooperation and Catholic Institutions: An inquiry into a traditional moral principle and its meaning for Catholic institutions today, with reference to Catholic hospitals in Australia. Following a short spell as parish priest of Bayswater, WA, Fr Parkinson was appointed Director of the L J Goody Bioethics Centre in Glendalough, WA, at the beginning of 2003. Professional Since 1993 Fr Parkinson has presented sessional units in moral philosophy, moral theology and bioethics at St Charles Seminary and the University of Notre Dame Australia, and occasional lectures at other State universities. He regularly presents professional development and adult education programs for educators, health professionals and parishes in Western Australia. For nearly 20 years Fr Parkinson has also worked on numerous ethics committees: 1989-1993 Committee for the Conduct of Ethical Research, Edith Cowan University, WA 1992-1996 Human Rights Committee, University of Western Australia 1997- 2006 Confidentiality of Health Information Committee, Health Dept of WA 1999- St John of God Health Care (Western Region) Ethics Committee 2000- Reproductive Technology Council, Health Dept of WA


2002- Genomics Branch Ethics Committee, Health Dept of WA 2003- Mercy Ethics Committee, Mt Lawley, WA 2006- Clinical Ethics Consultancy Service, Women’s and Children’s Health Services WA Hong Nhung: Dear Fr. Parkinson, We are here on behalf of VietCatholic News Agency, a media outlet for the Church in Vietnam and Vietnamese Catholic Communities around the world. We understand a Catholic Bioethics Centre conducts research, consultation, publishing and education to promote human dignity in health care and life sciences, and derive its messages directly from the teachings of the Catholic Church. Can you give us some more insights of the activities at your centre? Fr. Parkinson: Sure, this centre, the Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth was established as a resource for the Catholic health care sector in Western Australia. We have 5 Catholic hospitals in the state and they each deal with the issues that sometimes need advice from ethicists that represent Catholic point of view. We also were founded to be a resource for the bishops and for the priests and for the education system and for anyone who really wants to talk about an ethical issue particularly in medical ethics. So people can phone in or email or come in from the streets and sometimes people just want to talk about something that’s happened to them or to their family while they are in hospital or they might be looking forward to some medical procedures and wondering what the Church’s position on that might be. So we’re really just a non-medical ear and hopefully able to shed some light from a Catholic perspective on the issue. We also consult to the West Australia government through the health department and through committees and we take part in a clinical ethics service for women and children’s health, particularly with newborn babies. There can often be difficult ethical issues that doctors need to work through. So we’re able to contribute to that to draw on our experience on not just the Catholic tradition but the philosophical tradition of ethics and make some contribution. I spent all of today talking to schoolteachers, part of our work as in servicing Catholic schoolteachers and principals doing personal and professional formation for them. We also try support a local organisation of Catholic doctors and nurses although they’re quite separate from us we just try to support them along the way. We also do some adult education, speaking in parishes on ethical issues, and we have a Website which we are trying to, we’re still establishing, but we’re trying to make the Website a point of contact for people looking for information on the Catholic Church on issue Hong Nhung: How does a Catholic Bioethics Centre interact with the ordinary bishop in the administration of the diocese, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers in the Vatican, and with the domestic public policy-makers?


Fr. Parkinson: Wow that’s a lot, we were set up by the previous Archbishop of Perth William Foley, and we are supported very strongly by the present Archbishop of Perth Barry James Hickey. And really our main task is to provide advice or comment on issues when the bishop asks us to and sometimes we try to get ahead of the game to make comment on the issues that we see coming up so that the bishop is prepared ahead of time. So working with the local bishop is fairly straightforward. We don’t have any formal connections with the offices in Rome, Imperial offices or the Pontifical Councils or the Congregation, of course we receive their documents and part of our job is to try to make those documents more accessible to people and put the contents of the documents into more user friendly language sometimes. Some of the congregation published bulletins that we receive but there are no real formal contacts there. Our relations with domestic policy makers are quite good, in Western Australia we have a fairly reasonable number of politicians, Catholic, Christians, some non-Christians who very much support the values that we would be promoting. And so we’re very happy to work with them to offer them insight into some complicated issues that often they don’t have time to research adequately. And over the last [well] 15 or 20 years, we’ve been able to contribute through public debate on policy, health care policy and other state policy. [Yeah] It’s a good relationship, I think perhaps sometimes the politicians can appear to be very negative and against the culture of life. My experience is that a good number of them are very much on side. Hong Nhung: Is it true that each individual Australian diocese has its own Bioethics Centre? If so, how do they co-operate with one another? Fr. Parkinson: Not every diocese does have a bioethics centre, the Australian Church is organised along provincial lines so there are 5 provinces in Australia. But there are about over 30 dioceses, so in this province we have 4 dioceses. So we would resource a lot of those. The centres are in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth. We don’t have any formal association, we do talk to each other from time to time on a personal basis but there’s no formal organisation. We do keep in touch at conferences, and of course, the email makes it very easy for us. There is an association of Catholic bioethicists, but that’s for individuals not for the organisations as such. But by and large we cooperate fairly happily, the Australian Catholic bishops of course have their own committee for ethics and morals and they can co-op any of us to work with them, they frequently do. That’s mainly though bases down the east coast of Australia, so this centre doesn’t get involved in that so much. Hong Nhung: Can you give us a brief summary of the current ethical climate in Australia with regard to abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and stem cell research? Fr. Parkinson: Sure, give you a brief summary of all that. Abortion is legal in every state in Australia as far as I’m aware, up to about 20 weeks. There are differences


from one state to another but that’s pretty much the case across the board. And that’s being the case certainly for the last 20 or 30 years, now there are occasionally efforts to relax the laws on abortion because technically a woman can have an abortion only for health purposes, but we know that that’s not always the case. And then there are sometimes attempts to tighten up the laws to make it more restrictive, they’re rare but every now and again we get well meaning, good intentions politicians attempting to do that and we try and support that. In Victoria recently, a law was passed to remove doctors’ right of conscientious objection. So in Victoria if a person wants a termination of pregnancy the doctor has an obligation either to provide it or to help them acquire it. And that’s something we have a major objection to because while we try to respect the conscience of others we like to think that others would respect the conscience of our doctors as well. With regards to euthanasia, apart from very brief period in the Northern Territory, euthanasia has never been legal in this country. By euthanasia, we mean deliberate taking of a life either by an action or omission intended to relieve suffering. Nevertheless, in Tasmania at the moment there is a law being debated and in Western Australia there is one Member of Parliament who is preparing a bill to introduce euthanasia. Now we’ve fought against that in the past, we’ve put up arguments as to why it shouldn’t be allowed and we’ll continue to do that. I suspect this is going to be an ongoing struggle for us that every couple of years we’ll have to go through this again and again. I fear that at some point, a law will be passed and at that stage we’re going to have some major issues with our hospitals. I hope that’s a long way off though. Stem cell research is at an interesting crossroads in Australia at the moment. There’s very little stem cell research happening in Western Australia in this province. It’s mainly down the East Coast, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and some in Adelaide. The problem we have of course with stem cell research is not with the research itself but the fact that human embryos are destroyed in order to do the research. If research can be done without destroying embryos, we see no problem with it. Now in Western Australia, just a year or two ago, the Parliament refused to allow the creation of embryos for the purpose of research. We are the first state to do that. It’s put us out of step with the rest of the country but many of us a very proud of the fact that at the moment, at least, we have a legislature, which is prepared to stand up for the dignity of human life. And of course all of this might be irrelevant anyway because of the advances being made with induced purely potent stem cells. That is an ordinary skin cell, which can be re-programmed to behave like stem cells. That’s a wonderful advance and we hope that more researchers will take that up because the pressure on embryos will be reduced. So in many what’s happening in Australia mirrors what is happening in the United States, in the United Kingdom and in other parts of the western world. So yes, there’s always something new. Hong Nhung: A common argument against the Church’s teaching on euthanasia is that: “Why should I suffer and then die, when I can choose to die without suffering?” A few people, even Catholics, have an impression that the Church seems to commend suffering. How would you respond to that?


Fr. Joseph Parkinson: I’d make several points, first of all. Generally speaking, in our health system, it’s not necessary to suffer pain in the process of dying. Generally speaking. Most pain can be controlled, if not eliminated, controlled to a reasonable level. It’s true that there is some breakthrough pain, which is extremely difficult to control. But generally that is towards the very end of life, it’s often in the last days or hours. But of course what we’re talking about is suffering, not just pain. Suffering can be more than just physical pain, it can be psychological, and it can be spiritual. There are other aspects to suffering which can’t necessarily be controlled, certainly not by medication anyway. Now the Church holds that suffering can be redemptive. If the person unites themselves with the sufferings of Christ. So that means the person chooses to identify their own suffering with the suffering of our Lord. And of course does that with a clear sense of the resurrection, that suffering is not the end of the story, that there’s something extraordinary and wonderful after that. So we would certainly hold that as a valuable part of our understanding of suffering. But that’s something for each individual to choose. It’s not something that the Church says everyone has to endure. It’s a choice we each can make for our own reasons. And it’s quite okay to not want to suffer. That’s all right. We are committed as a Church which promotes health care, to minimize the suffering, to reducing it -- through analgesics, through medications, through counselling, all of the other ways that are able to achieve that. Even when medications might render a person unconscious, when that’s necessary, then we’re quite comfortable with that. So in a sense, there’s no real need for people to die in pain. If they choose not to, if they want to have that pain controlled or suppressed, that can happen. Your question, I think, is about euthanasia, “Why shouldn’t I just be able to ask for an injection that will kill me?” There’d be an argument; I suppose if that’s all euthanasia lobbying wanted. But in fact, they’re on the public record saying that they really want the right to choose when to die – the moment of death and the mode of death, even without suffering. When a person’s simply tired of life, that, “this is the time to end it, so I’ll end it” But it’s also important to realise, that in order to do that, a person needs the help of someone else, a doctor or a nurse, often euthanasia really means physician-assistance suicide. Now there are major problems with that. Do I really have the right to ask someone to kill me? Can I make that demand of you? Can I put you under that sort of pressure? Can I expect the medical profession to change what has been its driving method; it’s dynamic for hundreds, even thousands, of years; to ask the medical profession, to change that now because some people want to end their lives at a time of their own choosing. Nowhere that has passed laws to enable euthanasia have those laws been able to control the practice. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the Netherlands or Switzerland or Belgium or the state of Oregon, in the United States. In all those legislatures, there’s ample evidence of abuses of the law, that people are being euthanized without being asked first. The requirements of the law not being met by doctors. Nowhere has been able to control it, so, my sense is, while I can understand people wanting the right to die at a time of their choosing, I don’t know that anyone has the right to ask or demand help in doing that, and I know it’s


impossible to control it, if the law is passed. Hong Nhung: In Vietnam, we have programs to assist AIDS patients and their children, to provide health care and aged care for the poor, and palliative care for the sufferings. We understand that we ought not to simply argue against euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide. To be truly credible in our stand, we need to stand up for the suffering, the dying, and those afraid to endure. Is there anything else that you can suggest? Fr. Joseph Parkinson: I understand and I agree entirely. We can’t as a church, simply be sending a negative message all the time. Jesus wasn’t always all about telling people what they shouldn’t do. He was about empowering them to be everything God calls them to be and embraces them to be. So, it’s certainly true that there comes a time when we need to be prepared to put our money where our mouth is and commit to initiatives that will support the dying, that will provide relief for suffering that will seek to look after and comfort and seek cures for HIV and so on. This is a challenge for the whole church, this is not just for the bishops, and it’s for the people of the church to take up as well. And of course, in a sense, the bishops can only do what the people will enable them to do. I can only agree with the direction of your question. We need to do more than simply say, “no”, all the time, we need to be promoting the dignity of life in positive ways, in whatever way we can and building up what Pope John Paul [II] called, “the culture of life” That’s a whole atmosphere, an ethos which respects all people regardless of where they are, where they come from or where they’re going. How we do that? Well, we each need to do it in our own personal life first of all, but then as a church we also need to be committed to making that happen; health care and in a whole lot of other ways as well. Hong Nhung: Three years ago, we published your speech – a very eloquent one – at the launch of the book “Advancing the Culture of Death: Euthanasia And Physician-Assisted Suicide” written by our fellow countryman, Fr. Peter Hung Tran. The book was translated into Vietnamese and later published. It has contributed a lot on the philosophical study of the ethical controversies brought about by advances in biology and medicine there. We are happy to hear that Fr. Peter Tran has been working here with you for quite a long time now. Would you like to tell us how the book and its author have contributed to Bioethics in Australia? Fr. Joseph Parkinson: Well, that would take a long time to describe. Father Tran’s book is one of the clearest and best-researched defences of the Catholic position on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. It was a great pleasure to help launch that book because we need that clarity of thought; we need people prepared to express themselves clearly, as Father Tran does in the book. And we need people who are prepared to speak to address groups, to be out there, telling the story – face to face. Father Tran’s been doing that, speaking to groups and different parts of this city and this state. The book has been taken up right around Australia. It’s been given to


politicians, to policy makers, to hospitals; it’s present in libraries right around the country now. And I think it will continue to be a really important statement of our church’s position on this question. But Father Peter’s work isn’t limited just to that, he has also been taking part in adult education and teacher in servicing and he’s travelled to different parts of the state to speak to various Catholic groups. He continues to research here, and I know he’s been publishing in Vietnamese and I’m very much happy for him to continue that and extend that because as a Church here in Perth, he have benefited greatly from the Vietnamese born population of Perth and particularly the number of priests who have come to us from the Vietnamese born population. And so I think there is a time when we can return the compliment, return the favour, support the Church in Vietnam as well. I see that as our task here. I know that Father Peter will also be teaching in New Zealand coming up and I’m happy to be helping him prepare for that. He’s been doing tremendous work, and this is all in addition to his main work, which in the monastery in North Perth. So we’re very pleased that Father Tran is working with us and we’re hoping he’s going to stay with us for a long time. Hong Nhung: Fr. Parkinson, thanks for your time and your help to raise awareness among our readers on issues relating to abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. J.B. An Dang Perth City, 21 June 2009

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