It’s my privilege to write about stories and issues related to Catholic health care, and in the last 12 weeks or so, physician assisted suicide has certainly been the topic on my front burner. In the weeks following the Feb 6 Supreme Court ruling, much was said and written, but now the “buzz” has mostly died down. Other news has taken its place, and other concerns have captured our 3.5-minute societal attention span.
In the initial flurry I was reading everything in sight, collecting every opinion and angle, and looking for a fresh and creative way to add my two cents to the mix. Then it happened — Ron Rolheiser published his thoughts in the April 1 edition of the Prairie Messenger. I just put my pen down and considered submitting a three-word article — “Defer to Ron” — but I didn’t think that would fly. I decided to move on, find other Catholic health stories to write about.
But here I am at my computer at 6:45 a.m. with a full article in my head that must be written. Now, it may be that I am somewhat influenced by the movie I saw last night with my family — a movie called Chappie where a computer engineer unlocks the code beyond basic artificial intelligence (as noted by the already mobilized force of robot cops) to create a one-off sentient being whose program gets loaded into a scrap-pile of a robot with only five days of battery life. Do I need to tell you the ending? (Spoiler alert: in the midst of a bloody, gang/rogue military operation, Chappie the robot figures out how to download his and his Maker’s consciousness onto a thumb-drive and into new robot bodies, living eternally ever after.) The movie is stupid, but the point is made: our instinct, our deepest desire, is to live.
It’s not the stupid Hollywood movie that has me reflecting on the sanctity of life, but in fact it is real life that compels me to herald that living and protecting life is still newsworthy. I recently sat across the lunch table with a dear lifelong friend who shared with me that her friend had recently committed suicide. I knew this lady only as an acquaintance, but enough to know that this woman in her mid-50s had a bright and wonderful spirit, she had travelled the world, had a great job, and lots of friends and family who loved her. We sat there teary-eyed over our noodle bowls, trying to figure out the “why” of her choice. It was clear to us that there was no logical reason for her suicide, and in fact, I recall the words rolling out of my mouth, “suicide is an illogical and desperate choice.” We continued with our few shared memories of her, and then in a spontaneous gesture raised our water glasses to toast her life, and to capture a moment for ourselves to never forget her, and to never forget all of our reasons to keep living.
Later that day I found myself remembering others I have known that made the same desperate and illogical choice to end their lives. For the families and friends I personally know, time has still not been able to fully heal this tragic wound. From these moments and musings, my nagging question rises and persists — When?
When does suicide — assisted or otherwise — become anything but an illogical or desperate choice? When, in the real journey of a life, do we measure our circumstances and declare them as too great to bear? When do we encircle the life of another and agree with them that their life is no longer worth living?
Sadly, I think the Supreme Court gave in to a hasty answer to an illogical and desperate question. The Carter case has pushed all of us as Canadians to ask, “When can I end my life?” and the quick and short-sighted reply came, “Whenever you decide.”
As time ticks on, I wonder when physician assisted suicide will become normalized in our society. And, if I can find myself so ready to move on to other news, when might we all find ourselves complacent and quiet on the issue?
The challenge is to keep our convictions alive, and our voices heard. Regardless of how the government may respond in the upcoming year to the Supreme Court ruling, we need to believe that the conversation and concern about assisted suicide ends only when we stop saying something about it.
Kary is executive director for the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan.