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Building a Culture of Life

Mary Deutscher



What would you do if someone you love told you they were considering suicide? This is a very broad question, but the way we answer it tells us a lot about the value we place on human life.

The Christian response to suicidal thoughts is to try to find out why the request is being made and to help the person find hope and meaning in their life. Until recently, I would have said that this was “the Canadian response” as well, but following the release of the report of our Parliament’s Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, it would seem that Canada has decided to take a considerably different approach.

In one of many far-reaching statements, the parliamentary committee recommends “that individuals not be excluded from eligibility for medical assistance in dying based on the fact that they have a psychiatric condition.” The wording of this recommendation gets right to the heart of how proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide view these practices.

This recommendation is not talking about suicide as something to be avoided, or about hastening death as a rare, unwelcome, but necessary event that we begrudgingly accept. Rather, the parliamentary committee is upholding suicide as a good and hiding behind the phrase “medical assistance in dying” so it can pretend that euthanasia and assisted suicide are a way to help people.

In reality these practices are only a way to abandon people when they are most in need of affirmation.

Supporters of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are typically keen to point out that there is a difference between impulsively choosing suicide in a moment of despair and rationally choosing it after considering your options. However, even if we assume there is a difference between irrational suicide and rational suicide in theory, are we really able to distinguish between the two in practice?

It may be helpful to consider an example. Imagine a teenager, your son or daughter perhaps, has come to you to say they have been thinking about suicide. How would you respond?

I’m sure that most of us would be shocked, appalled even, but I would hope that we would reign in our emotions and bring our focus back to the person in front of us. Anyone who has received suicide prevention training would know that now is the time to fully acknowledge what the person has said. We don’t want to minimize their experience by telling them they are wrong or pretending they didn’t say anything noteworthy. We would likely want to dig a little deeper, to hear why these feelings are surfacing, and to try to find ways to bring meaning back to this young person’s life.

I do not believe there would ever come a moment where we would decide that they really had thought the situation through, and that we should give into their requests for help in killing themselves.

Now let’s extend this example. How would you respond if instead of being a teenager, the person coming to you for guidance were middle aged? What if they had a disability? What if they have received a cancer diagnosis? What if they had lived their whole life under the burden of a mental illness?

Our Christian faith tells us that each of these people is equally valuable and that they each deserve the same response from us. They each deserve our empathy and our support as they struggle to overcome their feelings of despair.

A number of psychiatrists told the parliamentary committee that psychiatric illnesses are often very complicated; they discouraged allowing physician-assisted dying for people who could easily be coerced into choosing to end their lives. Unlike the parliamentary committee, these psychiatrists seemed to be aware that it is impossible to judge when “the moment is right” for suicide.

How can we decide when to stop trying to help someone? What is the magical moment when we can say that it is OK to give in to despair? Is there ever a good time to say, “Yes, I understand; I wouldn’t want to live if I were you either”? Perhaps most importantly, if suicide is a right, why would we try to talk people out of exercising their right?

Canada is setting down a dangerous path, and the most frustrating part is that we don’t even have the intellectual honesty to try to answer these questions. Instead, we are throwing the burden onto our health care providers, demanding that they sort out the mess that we cannot figure out ourselves.

There is, however, comfort in knowing that our Christian mission has remained unchanged: we must continue to strive to find meaning in suffering and to bring hope to persons who are burdened by despair. We must continue to shine as a light in the darkness, and to remind people that suicide is a problem, not a solution.

Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.