(Left) Activists protest against the proposed statutory amendment legalizing the euthanasia of young children in 2014 in Brussels. (CNS photos)
Just over a year ago,
the Supreme Court of Canada opened wide the door to euthanasia by ruling that
Canadians have the right to physician-assisted death. Like other legal
expansions of rights in recent years, this new development will not only
transform medical practices in Canada, but will also dramatically contribute to
a global “climate change” in everyone’s attitudes toward death and the dying.
physician-assisted death becomes part of funded medical care in Canada on June
6 this year, the Canadian government is currently in the process of preparing
legislation to regulate eligibility for euthanasia and to determine what
safeguards will protect patients.
On February 25, the
USA’s neighbor to the north heard from a special Parliamentary Committee on
physician-assisted dying. Sadly, its recommendations to the government go far
beyond what the Supreme Court envisioned with its ruling about the suffering of
those in “grievous and irremediable” medical situations.
Parliamentary Committee has introduced new proposals for Canada that, due to
their extremely wide scope, are breathtaking. It has recommended providing
euthanasia for consenting minors (i.e., children under 18), for those with
mental health conditions or any other kind of disability (which could include
anything from schizophrenia to autism, from eating disorders to depression, or
from fetal alcohol syndrome to acquired brain injuries), and for anyone who,
while competent, gave legal directives for euthanasia to be implemented when
they became non-competent (which could therefore include people who go on to
suffer from dementia).
The Committee has
also recommended that any institution receiving public funds be compelled to
provide physician-assisted death. This would of course include Catholic
institutions, despite the opposition of such institutions to euthanasia. The
Committee recommendations do not leave room for conscience rights of health-care
providers. Instead, doctors not willing to euthanize their patients would be
required to refer them to doctors who will euthanize them. In other words, they
would be compelled against their very consciences to cooperate in the newly
implemented euthanasia practices.
So far the Canadian
government has not revealed what its forthcoming legislation will actually
implement as constituting the new health-care regime. But the very fact that it
is receiving such disturbing and wide-ranging official proposals does not bode
well for what is in the pipeline.
It could be that the
Canadian government is about to enact legislation that is globally
unprecedented, in spite of the negative lessons from countries (like Belgium
and the Netherlands) that have implemented legal practices of euthanasia in
their health-care regimes. The current Liberal government likes to think of
itself as progressive and enlightened, as kind of a beacon to the rest of the
world. It has lately returned to majority control of the government, and it
seems determined to do things that deliberately contrast with the party
formerly in power, the Conservatives (who had resisted euthanasia).
It was Conservative
Members of Parliament who wrote a dissenting report that was appended to the
recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee. In this dissenting report, they
note that expanding access to euthanasia, in the way the Committee recommended,
would go well beyond what the Supreme Court determined in its ruling, which
clearly excluded, for example, those with “psychiatric disorders.” But now the
Committee has raised the possibility that anyone with a disability, including
anything from developmental disabilities to deafness and blindness, could be
granted access to physician-assisted suicide.
The magnitude of the
transformation in society’s approach to death and the dying being recommended
here is unprecedented. As if sensing this, the Committee Report wants children
to have access granted to euthanasia three years after the government
introduces its new legislation. What is most disturbing about this proposal
concerning minors is that a slow and steady expansion of the scope of
euthanasia seems to be deliberately envisioned.
will be introduced to the new euthanasia regime in 2016. And once they become
accustomed to the practice, then it would expand further to include the most
vulnerablein three years, children. The previously unthinkable will become a
new standard procedure: i.e., the euthanizing of those children who become
designated as living the sorts of lives that the euthanasia proponents consider
to be lacking in “dignity.”
Mark Warawa, the
Member of Parliament for Langley-Aldergrove and the Official Opposition Critic
for Seniors, along with Michael Cooper (St. Albert-Edmonton), Gérard Deltell
(Louis-St-Laurent), and Harold Albrecht (Kitchener-Conestoga) were among the
Members of Parliament on the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted
Dying. But it was they who bravely made a dissenting report in response to the
Report of the Committee tabled in Parliament on February 25.
dominated Committee Report goes far beyond the Supreme Court’s mandate and
ignores the deeply held beliefs of many Canadians,” said Mark Warawa in a
comment on the dissent he signed and submitted with the other Members.
in the Committee’s Report will put vulnerable Canadians, including seniors, at
risk,” said Warawa. “The report ignores the need for stringent safeguards and
palliative care. The report also disregards conscience protection for
physicians and health institutions.”
These Members of
Parliament submitting the dissenting report noted that the Committee’s report
“has recommended a legal framework that fails to adhere to” the Supreme Court’s
ruling, especially by opening up physician-assisted dying to minors. They also
noted the absence of safeguards for the mentally ill, because the proposed
legislation “fails to sufficiently balance respect for individual autonomy with
the need to protect vulnerable persons.”
Their other concerns
with the Committee’s report included the need to highlight the importance of
palliative care. “A genuinely autonomous choice for a person to end their life
is not possible if they are not offered palliative care, as they will see their
choice as only intolerable suffering or PAD [physician-assisted death],” they
palliative care is only available to a small minority of patients in Canada’s
current health-care system. From a human rights point of view, it would be much
wiser to expand access to palliative care rather than expand access to
euthanasia. The former option protects the most vulnerable, whereas the latter
option threatens their very lives, by pressuring them to follow in the
footsteps of anyone who actively seeks out a physician-assisted suicide.
From the standpoint
of the right to religious freedom, the dissenting report represents very
important advocacy for conscience protections in Canada. The issue is highly
significant because of the precedent that Canada would be setting for the
world. As the dissent says:
Committee recommends that physicians who conscientiously object to PAD
[physician-assisted death] be obliged to refer patients through an “effective
referral.” We believe that such a regime is unnecessary and would infringe on
the Charter rights of physicians. We note that Canada would be first
jurisdiction in the world to require an effective referral regime. Instead, we
believe that there are better models which protect Charter rights of physicians
and provide access to PAD for patients in other jurisdictions, including
Quebec. Physicians who conscientiously object to PAD are required to provide
information to patients on how to access PAD, and to advise a government agency
of the patient’s request. The government agency then connects the patient to a
physician willing to provide PAD.
The dissenting report
also points out that all institutions, like Catholic hospitals, must be
guaranteed the necessary freedoms to practice health-care in accordance with
conscience protections, because “healthcare institutions that object to
offering PAD should be exempted in accordance with the Supreme Court’s
determination that individual and collective aspects of freedom of religion and
conscience guaranteed under the Charter are ‘indissolubly intertwined.’”
In a letter to the
local newspaper The Vancouver Sun
(Feb. 29), Paul Schratz, communications director for the Archdiocese of
Vancouver, summarized the invaluable contribution to society of these Catholic
don’t need Catholic hospitals to kill people. If society really wants killing
centers, it should ask government to build them, not coerce institutions that
want no part of it.
ironic that people want the benefits Catholic hospitals have to offer, but only
to a point.
was the Catholic Church that built the foundations of the health-care system we
cherish today. It was the Church that challenged the barbarism of the world
more than 1,000 years ago. When society was abandoning the sick and elderly, or
killing them, the Church called Christians to care and show “hospitality”
(which comes from hospes, the same
Latin root word that gives us hospital).
Church’s message is the same today and always will be. Love one another by
caring for the sick, elderly, and depressed, even when society says it’s easier
to kill them.
hospitals will continue treating the sick and elderly with dignity by caring
for them and by seeing value in their lives.
The dissenting report
by the Conservative Members of Parliament also noted gravely that the proposal
for patients to be able to submit legal directives, in advance of their medical
decline into non-competent states, would unleash a host of unforeseen
consequences. Because “issues respecting advanced directives are extremely
complicated” from a legal point of view, the government of Canada needs to
recognize that “more time than was given to the Committee is required to
explore the legal and policy implications of advanced directives.”
What can the
dissenting voices of reason hope to accomplish in our perilous time?
To help us keep
things in perspective, we should note what is always constant in human nature.
On this theme, the Greek poet, Aesop, in one of his timeless fables, tells the
funny story of “The Poor Man and Death”:
poor man was carrying a load of wood on his shoulders.
a while he was feeling faint, so he sat down by the side of the road.
aside his burden, he bitterly called out to Death, summoning Death with the
words “O Death!”
immediately showed up and said to the man, “Why have you summoned me?”
man said, ‘Oh, just to have you help me pick this burden up off the ground!’”
Aesop’s fables exist
in many versions, and I have quoted a translation by Laura Gibbs (of the
version in Syntipas 2), but there is an alternate version in which the man is
not just “a poor man,” but “an old man.” Either way, the fable invokes the
cries of the vulnerable in difficult, end-of-life situations.
Often a moralizing
tag is appended to Aesop’s fables, but I doubt he himself wrote them. The one
passed down with this story says: “The fable shows that everyone clings to
life, even if they suffer from affliction and oppression.”
Obviously times have
changed, since many now think they want physician-assisted death, rather than
to “suffer from affliction and oppression.” But I would note, however, that
this story also contains some additional wisdom that the moralizing tag in fact
omits from its observation. To wit:
Even if someone does
feel like they are suffering from “affliction and oppression,” what they need
the most is not to have Death
summoned for them. Instead, what they need the most is help from other people:
namely, help to “pick up their burdens,” and to elevate their spirits.
The deliberate humor
in this little story is the ridiculous suggestion that Death can provide any
kind of help in the lifting of burdens. For example: when you have to sell your
house, and move across the country to a new home, do you call a moving company
to help you pack up and move your stuff? Or, because moving one’s entire
household ranks among the most traumatic trials one endures in life, would you
call up your physician, envisioning the big move ahead of you, and ask him to
give you a lethal injection? It would surely end all your trouble, very
incongruity of Aesop’s juxtaposition is the source of our laughter at the poor
old man’s resourceful extemporizing in the presence of the hastily summoned
figure of Death. After all, Death doesn’t assist one with one’s burdens; Death
simply eliminates the burden instead.
For this reason, the
Catholic teaching on physician-assisted death has consistently held that it is
always wrong to deliberately terminate a human life before its natural end.
Catholics therefore advocate for the principled, human rights-based position
that palliative care, not euthanasia, needs to be provided to those who are
suffering greatly at the end of their lives.
In this way, we can
perform the supremely humane act of helping others bear their burdens. And
while people of faith have often led the way, with their principled advocacy on
this issue, this is not just a “faith-based” argument that is inaccessible to
As in the example
provided by the ancient Greek pagan Aesop, it is ancient moral wisdom that
recognizes, in a principled way, the need for the poor, the old, and the
vulnerable to be cared for by their fellow human beings.
simply abandon them so that, being left alone, their only option is to summon
Death, is an immoral course of action. And this is why euthanasia is never
right. It is always an act profoundly at odds with the deepest traditions of