SASKATOON — The dangers of assisted suicide and euthanasia, strategies to work against their legalization, and ways to support those who are ill or dying were among the issues addressed Nov. 26 in Saskatoon, during a multi-faceted presentation by two members of the Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) of Canada.
The Living With Dignity event was organized by the diocesan Justice and Peace Office, and featured guest speakers Larry Worthen of Dartmouth, N.S. — who is a lawyer, a permanent deacon and the executive director of CMDS — and Dr. Margaret Cottle of Vancouver, a palliative care physician and member of both CMDS and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.
Worthen explained that the CMDS represents some 1,500 members from a range of Christian denominations and backgrounds. “We are very involved in advocacy to protect the conscience rights of physicians, and also to argue to support and defend our patients against threats like the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia.”
He provided an overview of the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada and other parts of the world, noting the importance of putting a human face on the issue in a way that highlights the dangers that legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide would pose to vulnerable persons.
“The media discussion has been focused on a number of individuals, who have become very public in their plea for legalization of euthanasia,” he noted. “But the concern that I have is that we don’t see the other people who will be affected by legalization: those who will be affected negatively.”
Worthen said that, contrary to some reports, the option for assisted suicide as outlined in the Carter decision would not be confined to those who are terminally ill. He noted that those who receive a difficult diagnosis, or suffer an injury that leaves them a paraplegic or a quadriplegic, often suffer depression and even consider suicide.
“If euthanasia and assisted suicide are legalized, that will be the ‘help’ that is offered to them,” he said. Ultimately, such legislation would lead to people with disabilities and illnesses being treated differently.
Worthen reviewed the current laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada, and gave an overview of past and present challenges to the law, such as the Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Sue Rodriguez case in the 1990s and the parliamentary defeat of a 2011 private member’s bill to legalize euthanasia. He also summarized the two current challenges: the Carter case now being deliberated by the Supreme Court of Canada, and the legalization of euthanasia as “medical aid in dying” in Bill 52, passed earlier this year in the province of Quebec — an attempt to circumvent the federal Criminal Code by asserting that euthanasia is part of health care, which falls under provincial jurisdiction.
Worthen stressed that euthanasia is the intentional killing of a person by another, with the intention of relieving suffering, and assisted suicide involves providing someone with the means to end their own life.
He clarified that in this country, patients already have the right to reject treatment. “Anyone can refuse any treatment at end of life. No one is forced to do that extra chemotherapy . . . (or stay on) a ventilation machine. It is OK at a certain point at the end of life to say: ‘I don’t want any heroic measures when it is time to go and meet the Lord.’ ”
With euthanasia and assisted suicide, “what we are talking about is actually killing people,” he stressed.
While the judge in the Carter case describes “a carefully designed system imposing stringent limits that are scrupulously monitored and enforced” to avoid wrongful deaths, the cost of such monitoring and enforcement is problematic in an era of increasingly limited resources.
Worthen noted that in other parts of the world where euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legalized, such restrictions quickly erode and are disregarded because it is too expensive to implement. In Belgium and the Netherlands, the numbers of euthanasia deaths are increasing each year.
The euthanasia lobby in Holland is now proposing that anyone over the age of 70 should be able to get access to euthanasia, and that it should not necessarily be provided by medical personnel.
Worthen challenged his listeners to consider how to personally respond to these issues. “God’s perspective is that human dignity is in each of us, no matter how smart we are, no matter how able we are, how privileged we are, how wealthy we are. The dignity of God is given to all of us.”
Palliative care physician Dr. Margaret Cottle urged listeners to avoid using the language of faith when arguing against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and to instead stress issues of public safety and preserving our social heritage of caring.
“While religious and philosophical ideas should be perfectly acceptable as part of public discussions in a democracy, that is seldom the case at present. Therefore, we need to attempt to ‘speak the language’ of our fellow citizens and colleagues,” Cottle stressed.
The media are not asking hard and probing questions about the consequences of legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, or investigating the abuses and wrongful deaths that are happening where it is legal, she added.
The debate is not about end-of-life decision-making; it is about deciding to end life, Cottle said, stressing that assisted suicide and euthanasia are not purely personal decisions. “Simply put, no human being dies in a social vacuum.”
If the euthanasia and assisted suicide laws are in place to provide autonomy in all things, how will we determine who will be refused, and on what basis or authority, questioned Cottle, again pointing to how the lines have been pushed farther and farther in jurisdictions like Belgium and the Netherlands. Those being killed have now included those who are merely depressed, individuals who fear some future disability, newborns with spina bifada or other disabilities, children and adolescents and those who have never specifically requested euthanasia.
The decision to end 2,400 years of physicians “doing no harm” under the Hippocratic tradition cannot be lightly abandoned, Cottle asserted. In studies and surveys, it is clear that physical pain and the fear of pain is not the main reason that people seek to die; rather, it is the psychological pain of indignity or of being a burden that prompts requests for death. “Have we gotten to the point that we will abet suicide because people need help using the toilet?”
Cottle cited an article by disability advocate Amy Hasbrouck, asking, “What about my right to cry for help?” and “If 90 per cent of suicide attempts are a cry for help, why is it that you want to make sure that I’m successful on my first try?”
To combat calls for euthanasia and assisted suicide, we must learn to accompany people in suffering, to provide care that is not a commodity, but a covenant, Cottle stressed.
“We need to remember that Jesus is concerned about people who are vulnerable, and we need to be, too,” she said, sharing insights into her experience in caring for those who are dying, including her own father, who suffered from dementia.
Palliative care says that a person matters because of who they are, and not how able-bodied they might be — “and that you matter to the end of your life.” As for how to journey with those who are ill or dying, “90 per cent is just showing up,” she stressed.
Cottle quoted Dr. Sheila Cassidy on the importance of caring for those facing death in a spirit of love and compassion: “It is a prophetic statement about the unique value of the human person, irrespective of age, social class or productivity. It is an affirmation that people matter because they are people, because God made them and loves them, just the way they are, not because they are good or witty or physically beautiful.”
Cottle also urged those concerned with the issue to continue to contact government representatives and officials, including the federal ministers of health and justice.
“What kind of social world do we want to leave for our grandchildren? Are we being good stewards of our cultural heritage of caring and respect for life?” she asked, urging those in attendance to protect the inter-generational river of compassionate caring.
“The love that we give and receive is both powerful and healing. It’s time for our generations to pass along this heritage to the next ones and to protect this river from those that would destroy or diminish it in any way.”