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January 2021 Pulse

On the 24 February 2020, BBC reported that the Canadian government has put forward a Bill to expand the scope of its current laws on assisted suicide to include people who are not terminally ill.

If passed by Parliament, the new law will create a two-track system for determining the eligibility for medically-assisted suicide. There is one track for patients who are terminally ill, and another for people who are not, such as persons with disabilities.

This means that under this new law, introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, Canadians with degenerative illnesses such as cerebral palsy could seek medically-assisted death. According to Canada’s health minister, Patty Hajdu, this new law would protect the vulnerable while at the same time give Canadians autonomy over their lives.

Canada legalised euthanasia and physician assisted suicide (Bill C-14) in September 2016, joining a growing number of countries where patients can legally receive help to terminate their lives. According to the justice department, more than 13,000 Canadians have been given a medically-assisted death since it was made legal.

Not every sector of Canadian society is in favour of expanding the scope of medically-assisted dying. In an open letter to all Canadians, religious leaders from the Jewish and Christian communities spoke eloquently against the Bill.

‘We are obliged to express our strong concern and opposition to Bill C-7 which, among other things, expands access to euthanasia and assisted suicide to those who are not dying’, they write.

Underscoring the fact that such a Bill would destroy the very moral fabric of civilised society, they continue: ‘It perplexes our collective minds that we have come so far as a society yet, at the same time, have so seriously regressed in the manner we treat the weak, the ill, and the marginalised.’

In unequivocal terms, the signatories of this letter state their firm opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide while exposing the euphemism that is used to disguise the practice.

We the undersigned remain inalterably opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide, the intentional killing of human beings, euphemistically being called ‘Medical Assistance in Dying,’ (MAiD) but which is more accurately, and tragically, nothing less than murder, as was recognised by the Criminal Code of Canada prior to the passing of Bill C-14 in June 2016.

The Judeo-Christian faith has always opposed the wilful and intentional killing of a human being because of the clear command in the Decalogue, ‘You shall not kill’ (Exodus 20: 13).

This command is premised on a fundamental truth found in Genesis that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This means that every human being and the life that he or she possesses must be valued and protected.

On the basis of this command and the high-view of human life which grounds it, the Fathers of the early Church such as Augustine have always opposed the intentional taking of human lives, including one’s own.

‘The commandment is “Thou shall not kill man”’, writes Augustine in Book 1 of City of God, ‘therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man.’

Writing two centuries before Augustine, the Christian rhetorician Lactantius refutes the attempts by pagan philosophers to valorise some forms of self-killing or suicide as a noble act. He writes:

… nothing can be more wicked than this … For as we did not come into this life of our own accord; so, on the other hand, we can only withdraw from this habitation of the body which has been appointed for us to keep, by the command of Him who placed us in this body that we may inhabit it, until He orders us to depart from it … All these philosophers, therefore, are homicides.

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the goal of the physician must always be to care and never to kill. Thus, the only morally acceptable approach to the terminally ill is to give them the best palliative care available.

The signatories of the letter made this point clearly when they state that ‘We are convinced that a robust palliative care system available to all Canadians is a much more effective response to suffering and to protecting the sacred dignity of the human person.’

Palliative care provides a loving and caring environment where the patient suffering from the pain and anxieties of a terminal illness is offered comfort and solace. In addition, the letter is careful to point out that such an approach is non-discriminatory and an expression of the best values of society:

Palliative care is a viable and life affirming alternative, which does not discriminate against any group and which gives expression to the ethics of caring and inclusion, hallmarks of Canadian values.

Many are of the view that this Bill, which allows disabled people to request for medically-assisted death, would also distort society’s perception of people with disabilities. As the Council of Canadians with Disabilities has rightly pointed out, a legislation like this would send the message that ‘having a disability is a fate worse than death.’

The signatories of the letter have also alerted the Canadian public to the real danger of the slippery slope. They write: ‘Soon, the Federal Government will be contemplating the expansion of euthanasia to “mature minors” and to those whose sole medical condition is mental illness.’

Those who oppose the Bill are also concerned that euthanasia and assisted suicide will be regarded as the pragmatic solution to the burdens that people with terminal illness or disabilities place on society.

With our world-renowned health care system now endorsing euthanasia as a ‘solution’ to human suffering, we will be undermining the creativity and resolve that is needed to confront some of the most complex cases of care. We are, in effect, imposing the intentional taking of human life as a solution to human suffering.

The policies that we adopt as a society and the laws that we enact are shaped by our moral vision. But once they are in place and actively implemented, these policies and laws will in turn influence our view of society and how its members ought to treat each other.

This episode in the Canadian experience with legislations governing end-of-life issues not only shows the moral vacuity of secular liberalism, governed as it is by a pragmatic and utilitarian calculus. It also demonstrates just how important it is for faith communities to speak up on this and many other issues, and to bring to the discussion the rich insights from their religious traditions, even though they may sound strange and discomforting to secular ears.

These values were once central in cultures and societies that were shaped by the Judeo-Christian heritage, but are now but a fading memory. Religious voices can help society to recall – to re-collect – these insights and perhaps also to rediscover their wisdom and enduring relevance.

The letter is brought to a close by these moving and poignant words:

As religious leaders in Canada, we provide this moral vision through the living memories of our respective traditions which stem from thousands of years across continents and cultures. We do not claim to have the technical solutions to all these complex problems; however, our duty is to witness to the lessons about the human spirit, the inestimable value and meaning of life, and the equal dignity of all learned through the crucible of history and through our extensive experiences of being at the bedside of the sick and dying. A society suffering from moral amnesia is perilously vulnerable to repeating the painful mistakes of the past. Let us not forget what is most becoming and appropriate to human dignity.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.