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Building a Culture of Life

Mary Deutscher



June 6, 2016, was a momentous day for Canada. On this day the Carter decision took effect, striking down our laws against physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia and dramatically changing the way we respond to people who express a wish to die. Over the past month or so I have kept my ear to the ground, keeping abreast of our media’s attempts to understand the implications of this decision, and I think I am beginning to understand how we got to where we are today.

One program in particular served as a tipping point in my reflections: a conversation with Jean Vanier on CBC’s As It Happens. As I listened to this interview I realized something felt a little off. Euthanasia is a gut-wrenching topic, so I generally feel uneasy when I listen to these programs. As I listened to yet another question about individual rights, I realized it felt as though the interviewer and Vanier were speaking entirely different languages. She would very clearly ask him a question about the right to die, and he would reply by speaking about his own experiences living in a L’Arche community.

I need to pause for a moment and state that this interviewer was skilled. I felt the questions she posed were honest and that she was legitimately trying to understand the L’Arche perspective. I also believe Vanier was in no way trying to dodge her questions or muddy his replies. Vanier was very articulate, but there continued to be a disconnect between the types of questions asked and the types of replies given. This culminated when Vanier was asked about the role of individualism in our society.

“So there’s ‘something’ in society that’s going wrong when we think all the time that people have to be perfectly independent, perfectly strong, where in reality, my God, we need each other.” Vanier continued, “there’s a fundamental sickness in our society. And how can we, little by little, discover this? To move from the I to the we — we are all fragile, we all need help, and yet at the same time we all have strengths.”

These comments turned on a light in my mind and I realized why Canadians think we need euthanasia. This decision was not made by our Parliament this June, nor did our Supreme Court make it in February. It was made long before that when we decided we valued individualism over community, autonomy over interdependence, and personal freedom over truly compassionate care. A society of isolated individuals needs euthanasia because it has no concept of how to care for each other.

There was a dissonance between the interviewer and Vanier because the worldview of the “right to die” and the worldview of L’Arche are incompatible. The former is rooted in individualism while the latter is rooted in community. It is impossible for a person such as Jean Vanier, a person who feels love and connection, to even imagine himself needing the right to die. Indeed, he expressed as much in his interview and reflected on the positive experiences he has had in journeying with others through their final days.

Vanier’s emphatic comment that “we need each other” is still lodged in my brain weeks after the interview. These words sounded less like a statement and more like a plea when he said them in the interview. As much as I wish Vanier’s words could be heard by active proponents of euthanasia, I worry that his plea is only echoing in the void of individualism. It seems our Charter of Rights and Freedoms has become less about protecting each other and more about demanding things at the expense of each other.

Toward the end of his interview Vanier also gave a few words of encouragement to our legislators, reminding them: “It’s not just a question of legislation about death, but we should also have legislation about life: to help people to live and to live fully and to create . . . communities where people can find healing.”

Many Canadians believe that death is an appropriate response to suffering because they have never seen what a life-giving response looks like. Canada’s eager adoption of euthanasia and assisted suicide shows us that we have failed to care for each other. If people are afraid of dying, it is because we have not shown them what a good death looks like. If they are afraid of living with a disability, it is because we have not respected the dignity of those with disabilities. If they are afraid of loneliness, it is because we have failed to build a welcoming community.

The Christian way of living is radically different from what is being accepted by much of the progressive world. We need to use our legislature to proudly defend life-giving options for all Canadians, and we need to focus on creating life-giving communities where we can safely share our vulnerabilities and our strengths.

Why, you might ask? Because we need each other.

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.