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A Life Well-lived: Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

Wednesday, 26 November 2014  | Denise Cooper-Clarke


Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a Melbourne Catholic bioethicist and Associate Dean of John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, died on November 7 at the age of 58, after a long illness. That phrase “after a long illness” is commonly used in death notices, but in Nicholas’s case, it hardly does justice to his story. At just 21 when he was a student at Monash, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid auto-immune disease and given a bleak prognosis: as well as crippling and painful arthritis, progression to eventual failure of his kidneys and other organs. Possibly, he was told, he would survive five years. Such news would be devastating for anyone, and in that situation some people might allow their illness to take over their life, or decide to give up their studies and work through their ‘bucket list’.

But Nicholas enrolled in a Master’s program in sociology and philosophy, and later set up Australia’s first hospital ethics centre, at St. Vincent’s, Melbourne, himself becoming our first hospital ethicist. He then began lecturing and publishing in bioethics, achieving international recognition, and completing his PhD in 2000 at the University of Melbourne with a thesis entitled “Human dignity: autonomy, sacredness and the international human rights instruments”. His commitment to the dignity of the human person was foundational for his thinking in diverse areas such as abortion, IVF, human organ and tissue donation, torture, capital punishment, gender reassignment and the care of the dying. The Age reported his death under the heading “Leading anti-euthanasia advocate Nicholas Tonti-Filippini dies”. He certainly was passionate about euthanasia, but he was concerned about so much more than that. And he was not an “anti” person, but “pro” human life in the broadest sense.

 I came to know Nicholas through the work of the Ad Hoc Interfaith committee, which he convened and chaired, and of which I am a member. The committee includes Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, evangelical Anglicans, Pentecostals, Lutherans and Uniting Church Christians, as well as a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim. Nicholas was able to steer us in the process of putting together submissions to the Victorian government on a number of topics, including abortion law reform, stem cell research, same –sex marriage, organ transplantation and euthanasia. That we could arrive at substantial agreement on these topics is testament to his skill and hard work, as well as his profound learning and commitment to public engagement. His energy was all the more extraordinary given that he was on renal dialysis (and had been for some thirty years), was often exhausted, in chronic pain and required frequent hospitalisation and surgery for coronary disease. Indeed, our committee was asked to pray for him a number of times when he was very gravely ill. But he was matter of fact about his illness, there was no complaining or self-pity, and the committee members came to greatly admire his courage and faith.

Nicholas’ own experience of suffering and terminal illness made his opposition to euthanasia all the more poignant and powerful. He wrote a personal submission to the (then) Premier Mike Rann, when South Australia's Voluntary Euthanasia Bill 2010 was to be debated in Parliament: I am no stranger to suffering and disability and am well aware of the limitations of palliative care , but went on to argue that, Seriously ill people do not need euthanasia. We need better provision of palliative care services.. Rather than help to die, the cause of dignity would be greatly helped if more was done to help people live more fully with the dying process.

Nicholas “walked the talk”. Much of his suffering and certainly a great deal of inconvenience could have been relieved by a kidney transplant, but he steadfastly refused to have the procedure because of his ethical concerns about the method by which brain death is determined before organs are taken from a donor in Australia.

A few years ago, I gave a lecture with him to a first year class of Science and Arts students at Melbourne University on the ethics of contraception- he from a Catholic and me from a Protestant perspective. I had expected him to take a natural law approach (and had prepared accordingly) but instead he quoted scripture (and papal teaching). I later discovered that while adopting such an approach, primarily philosophical and based on reason alone, early in his career, his thinking had shifted, through his experience working in a secular context on government committees (he chaired the NHMRC Ethics committee and was involved in the drafting process for the Victorian Medical Treatment Act 1988-90 and the Victorian Infertility Treatment Act 1995, as well as contributing to the UNESCO Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights). His later approach was to acknowledge that all people, of any religion and none, have values and presuppositions that cannot be ‘proved’ by reason alone but involve some kind of faith. He thought it was more honest, and committees worked better when people were upfront about and unashamed of their faith. There could then be a search for common ground.

There were many beautiful testimonies to Nicholas published after his death by his Catholic colleagues. But I found two more surprising tributes. The first from a dialysis nurse:

I count myself as extremely lucky to have cared for Nick as one of his nurses. While our view of the world was opposing - I am the staunchest of atheists - we found common ground in our desire for a well examined life. ..

 And this from Renate Klein: Nick Tonti-Filippini was a good, kind, and profoundly ethical man…and he never minded ‘being in bed’ with us radical feminists!! Nor did we!! He showed the world that you can engage with vitally important topics in a mutually respectful way and agree to disagree on some issues. …We learned a great deal from his unwavering commitment to staying true to his beliefs and admired him for it”.


Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke is a medical ethicist and Researcher with Ethos.


Comments

Barbara Deutschmann
December 2, 2014, 10:57AM
Thanks for this piece, Denise.
I always found Nick's letters to the editor gave me new perspectives - especially in the florid euthanasia debate where he had to contend with the slam-dunk "I watched my mother die" approaches. Who will replace him in the public conversations around Melbourne on this and other ethical issues?
John Capper
December 4, 2014, 9:00AM
Thank you, Denise, for this insightful reflection on Nick's life well lived and death well embraced.
It was a sad but unexpected surprise to see the condolence book at Catholic Theological College recently, and no surprise at all to see the outpouring of affection and respect.
True to himself and to God, and in that to his beliefs, Nick was a powerful force and will indeed be missed.
Ian Hore-Lacy
December 9, 2014, 10:40PM
Thanks Denise. He was clearly an amazing man, whom I only saw from a distance.
I hope your tribute gets wide readership and inspires many.
And as Barb says: who will replace him?
I'm so thankful for people like you engaging these matters where I am soon out of my depth.
Oskar Abley
April 2, 2015, 12:05PM
I knew Nicholas and the family as a child, they were good people as was Nicholas. I was very pleased to have met up with him again in 2013 whilst doing a nursing course.

There will not be another Nicholas however we can believe for more men of faith and courage to stand in the gap on behalf of others.

Regards Oskar

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