SASKATOON — Having lived with multiple sclerosis for some 30 years, Mark Pickup knows what it means to struggle with a chronic and debilitating condition. He also strongly asserts that legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia offer a false compassion that will threaten the lives of Canadians at their most vulnerable moments.
The recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the law banning assisted suicide is dangerous, immoral and a threat to those suffering illness or disability, he said. “It was a terrible decision that will irrevocably alter the character of Canadian society.”
Pickup, who lives in Beaumont, Alta., was the keynote speaker at a March 7 banquet held during a Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon Sobor In Action conference at Bishop James Mahoney High School in Saskatoon.
“It was not a victory for liberty. It was a victory for license and the abuse of human freedom,” he said, describing the court decision as “morally twisted.”
The court cited Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensuring the “right to life, liberty and security of person” as the reason to end a prohibition on physician assisted suicide for “competent adults who seek such assistance as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring and intolerable suffering.”
The ruling reveals “just how wide this death net of our Brave New World of the Canadian landscape is going to be,” described Pickup, stressing that the court does not restrict assisted suicide to terminal illness but opens it up to any “grievous and irremediable medical condition.” The court sets “broad, gaping parameters” which would also permit assisted death for any kind of intolerable suffering — physical or psychological. “They threw the gates of assisted death wide open,” said Pickup.
“So modern medicine’s magnificent advances can be refused, and the state will still have to give assisted suicide,” he said, predicting the Supreme Court ruling will pave the way to “all kinds of cruelties and abuse” and will put the lives of the most vulnerable in peril.
This reversal of thousands of years of ethical and moral teaching is not what people in pain need, he said. “People in physical pain need palliation, not death. People in psychological pain need counselling therapy, even when they are in the thrall of depression or grief, and don’t recognize that they need counselling.”
Pickup described his own struggles with darkness and despair. “At the two-to three-year point in my own downhill spiral with multiple sclerosis, my grief was so profound and unimaginable, my sorrow was so deep, my heartache was so sharp, that my judgment became clouded,” he described. If assisted suicide had been available in the mid-1980s he might have asked for it. Instead, he was enveloped by the love and support of his wife and of “a life-affirming community of concern” that showed him his own worth and revealed the love of God.
“They lifted up my value even when I doubted my own value,” he said, expressing profound gratitude that no one offered to take his life at such dark moments. “I am so glad today that did not happen. I would never have known my five (soon to be six) beautiful grandchildren,” he said.
“I needed to be able to grieve, to cry out, to say the most outrageous things, and not be held to a death wish that I might have sought when I was at my lowest point.”
In the recent decision, the court downplayed the highest and first right, which is the right to life, instead favouring personal autonomy, Pickup said. “They said the right to life must not require an absolute prohibition of assistance in dying. They quipped that we must not create a ‘duty to live’ as they called it.”
However, all rights carry responsibilities, Pickup said. “If we accept that there is a right to life, then surely we also have a responsibility to live that life to its natural conclusion — not only for ourselves but for the common good,” he said, stressing that an individual’s decisions always affect others.
“If I opt for assisted suicide it will affect my wife, my children and my grandchildren. It will affect my doctor — because I will ask her to stop being my healer and become my killer — and it will affect my society, because in a small but not uncertain way, it will help entrench the notion that there is such a thing as a life unworthy to be lived,” he said.
“We are an interdependent community, not autonomous beings in a jungle of self-interest,” Pickup asserted. “No matter how sick I become, I still have a responsibility to the common good of society. And I have a right to expect the best palliative care and those things that will foster life in me, even when life is ending.”
He cautioned against euphemisms like “death with dignity,” “right to die” and “medical aid in dying,” which are used to give an air of medical legitimacy to killing. “Clothe it in the most clever euphemisms, it is still murder.
“Let me tell you about death with dignity: it is not achieved by injecting someone with poison when they are at their lowest point,” he said.
“You will hear people talk about the quality of life or the lack of it. Let me tell you something about quality of life: it’s a moving target.
“When I was 25 years old and I had an upwardly mobile career, and I was healthy and athletic, if someone would have told me that within a very short time I would have a degenerative disease that would eventually land me in a wheelchair, I would have said ‘I don’t want it!’ But yet today, at 62, my life does have quality. Why? The standard changed.” Pickup said that he has learned that what gives his life quality is to love and be loved.
“These are dangerous times for people like me. Our lives are being devalued at every turn, with the ever-increasing acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide for the severely, incurably ill,” he said.
“I’m being told that I have a right to kill myself. And according to numerous polls, upwards of 80 per cent of my fellow able-bodied Canadians agree with that idea, should I become too disabled to do it by my own hand. I had no idea that my fellow Canadians held me in such low regard, or people like me.”
And yet, ironically, it was only two years ago that Parliament gave unanimous support to the idea of a national suicide prevention strategy to much public acclaim, which Pickup noted is a strange contradiction. “How can that be? (It is because) most Canadians think able-bodied and healthy people are worth more than the disabled, the ill and the sick. Quite frankly, our lives are often seen as not worth living,” he said, before urging his listeners to discern how faith is calling them to respond in a much different way.
“That may be the way of the world, but it must not be the way of Christ’s followers. We are supposed to change society, not society change us,” Pickup said with emotion, before quoting Malcolm Muggeridge: “Jesus healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the dead, gave back sanity to the deranged, but never did he practice, or include, killing as part of the mercy that occupied his heart. His true followers cannot but adopt the same attitude.”
Human fulfilment is never reached by killing or suicide, stressed Pickup, describing assisted suicide as an affront to justice, hope and charity that puts vulnerable lives in peril. “The common good concerns the responsibility that we have for all who are around us. The church teaches that the sick and the handicapped should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible,” he said, adding: “I want to know that my doctor and my caregivers will respect the dignity of my person, even if I have ceased to believe it myself.”
Pickup spoke about the concept of suffering and the redemptive power of linking one’s grief, loss and pain to Jesus Christ. “Christ can make sense of our anguish if we remain surrendered to his leading and sensitive to his voice and to his love,” Pickup said, giving witness to the power of Christ’s light and love in his own life.
“In 1984 at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with MS. I remember lying in the hospital and praying to our Lord, ‘Why this?’ and he answered me so quickly I could swear it was audible. He said: ‘You are mine,’ ” Pickup related. “God was trying to illustrate to me at the very outset of this 30-plus-year journey with chronic, degenerative disease: I was still his child, I was still a child of God. Not even disease could strip that from me.”
He came to trust that God was with him, and working for his good. “My journey would take me through a terrible fire, but God did not abandon me: like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, I was not alone. And like Job my flesh was destroyed, but my life was spared. I went from being healthy and athletic, to what you see today.”
The journey with chronic illness and disability has taught him the importance of life’s spiritual journey, Pickup said. “Humanity is not defined by knowledge or by power. We do not get our worth from what we can do, or our abilities, or even sentience. Our value comes from merely being. For those of us who are severely disabled, we must be open to God using our pain, our anguish, our frustrations, to spiritually mature us, to transform us to be more like Christ. This is important because as this transformation begins to occur, we will discover again our natural human dignity.”
Choosing to journey in trust, resisting bitterness and surrendering to the love of Christ has led Pickup to the realization that he is invited to unite his suffering to the suffering of Christ.
“Perhaps that is why our Lord said we must take up our cross daily. It requires a daily commitment to bear up under the weight of our cross and to follow him,” he said. “If I carry my cross of suffering, in union with Christ’s redemptive suffering, it does not lead to a Golgotha. It leads to a realization, that Christ uses human suffering to draw us closer to him, if we will accept it.”
Pickup added: “For it has been in my sick room that I began to discover the beauty of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. A great light began to shine into my inky darkness to reveal a renewed hope in Christ. My world gets smaller each year, as my body is turned into a living carcass, but my hope in Christ grows,” he said. “Christ can and does set people free.”