This is the fourth of a five-part series.
In the first three parts of this series I have tried to paint a bleak picture of what the legal availability of physician-assisted suicide means for vulnerable individuals and Canadian culture generally. On the other hand, while this legal battle seems unwinnable at this stage, I am not without hope. The church has lived through bleak times before.
While history is no picnic, Christianity offers us great resources for dealing with evil. In the final two instalments of this series I want to look at those resources. Today we will look at what Christians and our allies can do to both live and give hope in our current legal situation. In our final instalment we will look at the spiritual resources Christians have for facing death and dying.
In a culture with legally available physician-assisted suicide, several practical options for action present themselves to those who are troubled by the legal status quo.
First and foremost, Christians need to work hard to make their communities safe havens. Whenever Christians have not had the political power to protect the vulnerable through the mechanisms of law, they have still always had other means available. In ancient Rome, Christians could not make infanticide by exposure illegal. But they could pick up the babies left by the wayside and raise them. And, in doing so, they saved lives and changed culture.
In our current circumstances our first priority is to make sure that those in our families and communities are shielded from the pressure to commit suicide. This also means saving our families from the pressure to kill us when the question presents itself. There are a few practical things we can do in this regard.
First of all, we must never talk about people as burdens. Instead, we must be clear that it is our Christian privilege to carry the weak, that our very salvation depends upon it, that we need the weak more than they need us, that at some point we are all weak and that we all need each other. Language and discourse are important. They shape the way we face reality. We need to take great care with how we talk about suffering, death and dying when physician-assisted suicide is available.
We also need to be clear about our own wishes. More than one member of our family needs to know that we do not wish to be killed should the situation present itself. We need to encourage conversations among families. We also need to help people to make their wishes known through legal mechanisms like a living will. In the Netherlands, many people carry “Don’t Euthanize Me” cards in their wallets. Parishes could even sponsor workshops with lawyers to inform parishioners and the broader public about their options in this regard.
Essential to making our own communities safer for the vulnerable is work to make palliative care available to more Canadians. Palliative care can go a great distance in relieving fears about physical suffering, being abandoned and being a burden. When these fears are gone, so is the desire for suicide. Giving people the option to have themselves killed without giving them other options for relieving these fears does not present real choice, but stacks the deck in favour of suicide.
Christians and our allies have already begun talking about how to make palliative care more available. These conversations must continue. The question is particularly acute in rural areas. Could a coalition in your small town start working toward a facility to serve your population? It’s not impossible.
Beyond these measures to protect the vulnerable from the pressure to be killed, the other key area where we can work is in promoting conscience rights for health care professionals. Despite all the rhetoric of choice in our culture, governments seriously consider forcing health care professionals to either commit or refer for actions those professionals consider gravely immoral.
It should not be impossible to find practical solutions to the problems presented by the conflict between the ostensible right to be killed and one’s right not to kill. We need to work to find and promote such solutions so that no one is forced to choose between their job and their conscience.
That said, our communities need to make it clear to the health care professionals among us that we have their backs should push come to shove. In the early church a whole range of occupations were unavailable to Christians for reasons of conscience. Christians could not even be butchers in certain contexts because the meat market was often tied up with pagan temple worship. If someone’s ability to provide for their family is threatened by their refusal to participate in killing a fellow human being, that person needs to know that the Christian community will not allow them to go destitute.
We also need to support our Catholic health institutions. First of all, we need to work for legislation that allows Catholic institutions to refuse to participate in assisted suicides. (And, on top of protecting institutional conscience rights, a hospital where a person knows they will not be killed could be a great public service to those who fear what decisions might be made in their names once they are incapacitated.) But we also need to be prepared to support our institutions in cases where that legislation is not achieved.
Catholics need to realize that the government has no interest in shutting down institutions that provide care in a context where dollars and beds are already stretched. If hospitals are legally forced to act in ways that an informed Catholic conscience simply cannot, civil disobedience is justified. Let the government decide what to do with us if we refuse to co-operate.
Christians have always cared for the sick and the dying, and we will continue to do so no matter what happens legally to our health care professionals and institutions. As we continue to provide this kind of care in a way that is consistent with our values, we will provide a witness to a different kind of approach to death. It will be a witness that the world needs all the more desperately while our culture promotes death as the solution to suffering.
Part 5 of this series will look at a specifically Christian approach to suffering, death and dying.
Salkeld is archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina where he is responsible for the academic formation of diaconate candidates. He serves the CCCB on the national Roman Catholic - Evangelical Dialogue. Salkeld lives in Wilcox, Sask., with his wife, Flannery, and a growing family (numbers 5 and 6 are due this summer).