Just over 18 months ago I sat at my mother’s bedside during her final days. Her decision had been not to pursue further medical treatment, which inevitably meant that her death would be imminent. But she was content, and at peace. The palliative care that she received provided comfort and she left this world as she had lived her life – with dignity.
A dear friend chose a different path as he struggled with health issues over the past few years. He courageously endured numerous rounds of treatments that, at times, tested him mercilessly. But he was a stubborn, determined soul who squeezed as much time as he could from a life that had been well-lived.
Two different people, two different choices, yet their decisions are strikingly similar when you realize that in both cases, when faced with death, they determined they wanted to be the authors of their own destiny.
As a United Church minister, I have often journeyed with people as they grasp onto, sometimes firmly, sometimes not, every last moment of life. It is a privilege to be with people during these times – but it can be a challenge when faced with troubling questions about what constitutes a “good death”, and how does one achieve that when pain or disability can sometimes prevent an individual from living as they would want to during their last weeks, days, or hours on this earth.
The question of being able to die with dignity has been on my mind lately as I listen to renewed public debate over the question of whether assisted suicide and euthanasia should be legalized.
In June, the Quebec government approved legislation that allows doctors in that province to assist terminally ill patients who wish to die. In the months leading up to that decision, voices were heard both for and against what some people consider legalized murder, and others believe is compassionate care. It is a debate that is unlikely to be over soon.
This week, the Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to once again address the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia when it hears an appeal by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) in the Carter v Canada case. The BCCLA is challenging the laws that criminalize doctors for helping competent, seriously ill individuals who wish to hasten death.
Legal arguments aside, often the most compelling advocates for the right to die are the people who were faced with that fight in their own lives. Sue Rodriguez, Dr. Donald Low, and Gloria Taylor are just a few of the voices that have spoken passionately for the right of Canadians to die in a manner and a time of their own choosing.
For others though, any form of physician-assisted dying is a slippery slope that society must avoid at all costs. Clearly consensus is not something that will be easily achieved.
And so what insight or wisdom might I offer as a religious leader as the Supreme Court listens to arguments on both sides of a question that I believe challenges us as a society to hold in tension not only the legal ramifications of this debate, but also the moral and ethical issues that arise when discussing assisted suicide and euthanasia.
For Christians, life is a sacred gift from God and needs to be valued and protected. But we also know that both life and death are part of the whole created order. Life itself isn’t absolute. Nor certainly is death. To speak of the sanctity of life is to affirm God’s desire for abundance of life for all of creation. God is love, and the Christian affirmation is that God’s love is the only absolute. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us” says our creed.
So the United Church’s theological tradition is not to suggest that believing in the sanctity of life means that any attempt to end life must be prevented. Instead, what we are called to do is first listen to the struggles of those who are facing hard decisions and to make sure that they are not alone in those decisions, and second, to trust people with difficult choices about their own lives.
We also live, however, within the legal framework of our society and are bound to honour our laws. But laws change and this is an area where I think they should change in order to allow physician-assisted dying in circumstances that meet carefully defined criteria.
I came to this conclusion after weighing a persuasive range of moral, ethical, and legal arguments on all sides of this question. In the end, I concluded that as a society we have to talk more about death and dying. Our communities need to be places where no one struggles with life and death decisions without a listening ear and a warm hand. And as individuals we need help with the difficult choices we are called to make in our lives today, choices that all too often involve having to choose between the lesser of evils.
Hastening death should never be a first choice, but sometimes, for some people, when faced with the unbearable suffering of ALS, or a hundred other terminal illnesses, it may be the right choice. We need only listen to the stories of those who are walking and have walked this path, and trust the decisions they make about their own lives. Sue Rodriguez, Dr. Donald Low, Gloria Taylor, and I believe God, would want it that way.
- [Press Release] Moderator Reflects on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.
- Background information on the United Church, euthanasia, and assisted suicide.
- [Video] “Reflecting on Assisted Dying” with Bruce Gregersen, Senior Adviser on Theology and Faith.