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Building a Culture of Life

Mary Deutscher



Over the past several months Canada has been trying to adapt to the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide. But, as several recent news stories can attest to, there are some growing pains. For example, faith-based facilities are being asked: Should a publicly funded institution be able to refuse to provide a legal service?

That is a fair question, but I can think of three good reasons why we should not force institutions (or individuals, for that matter) to provide services to which they morally object. First, there are practical considerations. No health care institution in Canada provides all health care services. We are constantly shuttling patients from one hospital to the next, sometimes for a quick procedure, and other times for a longer stay, with no guarantee that any service is available on demand.

Patient transfers are par for the course, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're good at them. Patients can be left waiting for an ambulance for hours, or moved to a hospital only to find that their bed isn't ready yet. If we are balking at the idea of transferring a patient who requests euthanasia, it is a sign that our patient transfer system could use a lot more work. Insisting that euthanasia is accessible at all locations does not fix this problem, however.

Second, the euthanasia debate has been framed as a matter of choice, and when it comes to choices about end-of-life care, faith-based institutions provide a good number of Canadians with a valuable alternative.

As a Canadian who does not want euthanasia, I deserve to be cared for in an environment where I feel safe and know my life will be protected. When I am in my darkest moments, I want to be surrounded by people who will take any request for death as a call for help. This may seem unimportant to someone who thinks euthanasia is a good thing, but for me, this is essential for my ability to trust the people who are caring for me.

Most faith-based institutions enter into a covenant of care with their patients and residents. This allows persons who reject euthanasia to live secure in the knowledge that their caregivers respect and value their lives in a manner that is in keeping with a typical Judaeo-Christian understanding of human dignity as well as with the Hippocratic tradition.

As a third point, consider this: faith-based institutions are an important part of the health care system because apart from the care these hospitals, long-term care homes and clinics provide for individuals, they serve a greater purpose for our society more generally. Faith-based institutions have a long history of promoting the voices of marginalized populations, whether it is those affect by poverty, HIV/AIDS, or mental illness. Without these centres, an important voice in our national conversations regarding our treatment of those most in need of care would be silenced.

Canadians pride themselves on being a pluralistic country. Pluralism does not mean pretending that we all share exactly the same values; rather, it is about celebrating our differences and finding ways to live together peacefully. The legalization of euthanasia provides us with clear evidence that Canadians hold values concerning death and dying in different ways. However, we can still coexist collaboratively, sharing our resources and our skills. The alternative is to turn our back on the diversity of cultures that makes our nation unique.

This does not mean that we can accommodate all cultural diversity. It does, however, mean that if we are going to place limits on faith-based institutions, it should be because we have exhausted all possible alternatives.

The legalization of euthanasia places our society at a turning point in our commitment to pluralism. Will we demand conformity? Or can we acknowledge that we do not agree whether terminating a person's life respects their dignity, and so provide places — such as faith-based health care institutions — for values to be lived out in different ways?

Respecting each other's differences will take a lot more effort, but will ultimately enrich our culture. Perhaps it will spur us to work together to provide better palliative care and mental health services. Perhaps it will help people to fully contemplate the range of options available to them. At a minimum, I hope it will help Canadians to continue to value a plurality of voices in our public discourse.

Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She recently attained a PhD in public policy at the University of Saskatchewan.