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.
Because 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.
This special 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.
Canadian citizens 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 vulnerable—in 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.
“The Liberal 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.
“The recommendations 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 wrote.
However, adequate 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:
The 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 institutions:
You 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.
It’s ironic that people want the benefits Catholic hospitals have to offer, but only to a point.
It 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).
The 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.
Catholic 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”:
A poor man was carrying a load of wood on his shoulders.
After a while he was feeling faint, so he sat down by the side of the road.
Putting aside his burden, he bitterly called out to Death, summoning Death with the words “O Death!”
Death immediately showed up and said to the man, “Why have you summoned me?”
The 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 quickly.
The humorous 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 reason.
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.
To 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 human wisdom.