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National CMA Conference and Dinner Report 2019


On Saturday 14th of September over 120 healthcare professionals and bioethicists attended the Australian Catholic Bioethics Conference and Dinner at the Park Hyatt, Melbourne which was event was hosted by the Australian Catholic Medical Association (CMA) and the Order of Malta.  Several other sponsors including, Cabrini Health, St Vincent’s Health and Integer Financial Group, generously supported the event and enabled twelve medical students to attend both the conference and the dinner.

For those unable to attend, the conference and dinner was professionally filmed and recorded by Chris Mack at Starlight Broadcast ( and will soon be available for viewing by CMA members via our website. 


The guest speaker for the dinner was Prof Iain Benson, a leading international academic and practising lawyer in the area of Freedom of Religion, from the University of Notre Dame.  In addition, the afternoon saw eight leading experts share their insights and knowledge on these issues of the Future of Freedom in Healthcare and Victoria’s Doctor-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia legislation, deceptively known as Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD), to a large and appreciative audience, with many glad to see the tradition of Annual Catholic Bioethics Colloquiums, which were inaugurated and led by Prof Nicholas Tonti-Filippini for many years with the support of the Order of Malta and the John Paul II Institute, making a welcome return to the Australian Catholic scene. 


The students who attended also each received a five-volume set of Prof Nicholas Tonti-Filippini’s, “About Bioethics” series, courtesy of the Memorial Fund set up in his honour. These gifts were presented to the students following Prof Benson ‘s after-dinner address in which he demonstrated the old Chesterton adage that ‘only living things go against the stream’ by delivering a lively challenge to the status quo of a conformist modern medical ethics.  He also provided  a withering critique of the use of ‘values-language’ in healthcare and education which has recently replaced and undermined the time-honoured and objective ‘virtues-language’ of Christianity and Greek philosophy with an abstract and subjectivist moral framework of Post-Modern confusion.


The afternoon’s conference, in contrast, focussed on two specific healthcare issues. The first being the Future of Freedom in Healthcare and the second, Victoria’s Doctor-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (DAS and E) legislation, deceptively known as Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD).


The first session, on the future of Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Healthcare, was chaired by Mr Nigel Zimmerman, the current Principal Advisor to Melbourne’s Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli. He provided a brief overview on the vexed issue of how best to protect Religious Freedom in our current culture, and the contemporary political challenges we face, which provided the setting for the other speakers to engage the subject. 



Fr Paschal Corby OFM Conv, a bioethicist and medical graduate from Monash University who is also the current chaplain of the Victorian Catholic Medical Association, spoke on the imperative of maintaining Conscientious Objection (CO) in the practice of medicine. He described the recent and growing assault on CO in Healthcare by influential bioethicists, including Julian Savulescue, detailing their arguments and underlying premises, as well as their misconceptions of the nature of CO as constituting ‘cognitive bias, self-interest, personal beliefs and whims driven by irrational motives founded on religious beliefs incompatible with modern medicine’. In response.


In response Fr Paschal defended the Christian understanding of Conscience whose dignity is rooted in its witness to truth and its revelation of the fundamental truths of the human person. Truths not derived from positive law but written on the human heart, constitutive of the human person and of human flourishing. Conscience is therefore not seen merely as a ‘right’ or a valid contribution to a pluralist society by minorities, but as an essential element in a healthy society and an uncorrupted medical profession. Conscientious Objectors challenge the profession of medicine to be true to itself, providing the necessary stimulus to reconsider and justify its practices and maintain its legitimacy in the light of reasoned principles fundamental to the practice of good medicine and the promotion of the Common Good.


Assoc Prof Patrick Quirk, an academic lawyer currently working at the Australian Catholic University, in an address referencing Chesterton called ‘How to Cheat the Prophet’ provided several predictions about the future of freedom of conscience in Australia, drawing on his knowledge and experience of several international legislatures. He described the current picture as ‘non too rosy’, given the current moves to replicate Victoria’s coercive conscience laws in other state jurisdictions and expanding the scope to include euthanasia. He provided an overview of the current state of play with the current draft of the federal Religious Discrimination Bill, explaining its long and complex nature and task, and concluded by citing subclause 8, subsection 5 of the draft and quoting from paragraph 140 of the Explanatory. Memorandum, it reveals that current state laws hold sway in these matters of freedom of conscience and religion, thereby confirming the Commonwealth government ‘will NOT be coming to the rescue’ in states, such as Victoria, that have already outlawed their expression.


Dr Bernadette Tobin, one of Australia’ s leading bioethicists and currently working at the Plunkett Centre of the Australian catholic University, spoke about the scope and limits of Conscientious Objection, using the case of legalisation of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a case study to explore these issues. By providing an alternative to abortion and euthanasia as the standard bearers of CO discussion, Prof Tobin allowed the issue of conscience and freedom to take on a clearer focus. This and other difficult ethical cases provided for a fresh examination of the complexities of moral discernment and decision making, highlighting the universal nature of conscience as integral to the human experience of reality.


Following afternoon tea, the second session was chaired by Ms Julia Trimboli, a bioethicist working at Mercy Health, who also spoke about her experience in responding to the VAD legislation; detailing the many challenges she faced in leading the Mercy Health team to prepare and most importantly inform and educate the staff members who would be affected by the new legislation.  She then introduced Mr Dan Fleming, a bioethicist at St Vincent’s Health, who spoke about his experience leading Catholic Health Australia’s (CHA) task force, which was set up to educate, prepare and train its member organisations and their staff to respond to the many practical and ethical issues related to the enactment of the VAD legislation.


Mr Paul Santamaria QC, who provided CHA with legal advice regarding the VAD Legislation, spoke about the inadequacies of the purported safeguards of the legislation for protecting the vulnerable, describing the effect of the safe guards as mere wallpaper over the cracks of a fundamentally flawed and unsound structure. The issue of wrongful deaths was also raised with the many ways in which the VAD legislation could facilitate them were described. With minimal or non-existent oversight and little or no risk or consequence for possible offenders, no Coroner involvement and  the ‘legal’ falsification of death certificates by doctors, the issue of ‘life and death conflicts of interest’ between patient, doctor and family becomes an ever present reality, but now shrouded and protected by an unjust and  dangerous new law.


It is hoped this conference and dinner will continue as an annual event in which philosophers, bioethicists and health professionals gather to learn from each other and support each other in what is becoming an increasingly challenging and difficult to practice medicine in accord with a traditional and Christian ethos of healthcare.


For more information about the Australian Catholic Medical Association and upcoming events as well as applications for Membership Subscriptions to support and join the Association, please visit:


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