A Life and Death Issue: Speaking to a Society that is Sympathetic towards Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
by Mark Penninga (first printed in Reformed Perspective magazine, July/Aug 2009):
Who has authority to take away a human life? In the cloud of emotion and deception that encircles the euthanasia debate, that one question lies at the bottom. It is a question that may have to be answered by our country this year. On May 13, 2009 Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde introduced a private member’s bill (C-384) to our Canadian Parliament that proposes to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia. It is scheduled for its first debate in the House of Commons, and a subsequent vote, at the end of September. Canada has to understand the dangerous reality of this legislation.
Assisted suicide involves intentionally killing oneself with the help of another. Euthanasia takes it a step further by intentionally killing someone with the purpose of relieving their suffering. Bill C-384, as it is currently written, would legalize both assisted suicide and euthanasia. And it doesn’t limit its scope to the terminally ill. Rather its scope includes people with depression or other chronic mental conditions.
If this bill passes in its current state, we would be one of the most liberal countries in the world in this regard, joined only by the Netherlands. A few other countries, along with the states of Oregon and Washington, have already legalized assisted suicide.
According to recent polls, a majority of Canadians (as high as 71 per cent) support the legalization of assisted suicide. Interestingly, those numbers drop significantly (as low as 45 per cent) when there are also questions asked about the effects of this on the disabled and other vulnerable members of society. The point is that there are many Canadians who don’t really understand the issue. Even Christians fall for misleading talk of “compassion” and “dignity.” If we don’t engage in public discussions about these issues we shouldn’t be surprised when our culture shifts from its Christian roots to the now-dominant postmodern religion of secular humanism.
Here are some common challenges and possible answers to help you respond to this issue as you engage in discussion with your colleagues, friends, Member of Parliament, and others who may not share your concerns or faith. [If you are looking for information about the bigger philosophical and legal questions associated with this issue, check out the articles “Euthanasia on the Horizon” and “Dying with Dignity” available at www.arpacanada.ca.]
Legalizing assisted suicide or euthanasia has effects that go far beyond those who choose to end their lives.
Under Canadian law today, all born humans can be assured that their lives are intrinsically valuable. This value isn’t based on what we own or what position we might hold. We aren’t recognized as valuable for what we can do, but simply for what we are – precious human beings. Nobody needs to justify their existence. We don’t have to “measure-up” to somebody else’s standards if we want to continue to live. On the contrary, we all have equal protection under the law, regardless of our age, sex, race, or ability.
That would change if euthanasia is legalized. We would shift from being protected by the law to having to prove we were not a burden. We would be evaluated on the basis of what we could still do – we would have to justify our continued existence.
Already now the elderly and disabled can struggle with feelings of being a burden to their families or on society in general. If euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal, the law then forces them to justify their lives at a time when they feel least valuable.
Combine this with an aging population, increasingly broken families, and a strained health care system, and it is of little surprise that euthanasia and assisted suicide will be sold as an ethical way for people to “die with dignity.” How convenient for our selfish society.
Love and care vs. death
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are requested or administered because someone decides that life is no longer worth living – either for themselves, or someone else under their guardianship – because of mental or physical suffering or disability.
We need to ask two questions. First, death may be an answer but is it the right answer? Second, whose interests are being cared for if death is considered the solution?
If death is chosen when other options will address the problem, it is a very sad testament to our society’s indifference towards human life and our hypocritical double-standard when we talk of human rights. And there are other options. As just one example, palliative care involves physically, emotionally, and spiritually caring for dying people by alleviating suffering as much as possible. Dr. Margaret Cottle is a palliative care physician and a clinical care instructor at the University of British Columbia. In an interview on the topic of assisted suicide for the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of the IMFC Review she makes the astute comment that:
It’s a real privilege, when someone is at a place where his or her body is not all that beautiful anymore and they don’t have anything to contribute from a worldly standard, to be able to say, “It’s not your job to feel significant; it’s our job to impart that significance to you.” There is something very healing for the person who receives that and also for the person who gives that.
Dr. Cottle also noted that in studies done about the biggest fears that dying people have and the reason why they would want to die earlier, physical pain is a small concern. She notes:
Their big fears are fear of being a burden and fear of being abandoned. As a community, we need to realize that it may be a burden for one person or family to give care. But it doesn’t have to be a burden if all of us get involved and help out.
That is exactly the point that policymakers and judges need to keep in mind. The root of the problem which is leading to a call for physician assisted suicide is not something that can be solved by getting rid of laws which keep people from committing suicide or receiving help in doing so. Looking to legalized suicide as an answer does not satisfy the thing that dying people need most – love and care. It is society’s duty to provide this. When we say that death is the best option, is it because it is the most convenient option for a selfish and aging society?
Letting die vs. killing
Some people support assisted suicide simply because they are fearful of being kept alive artificially and spending their last days, months, and even years in submission to life-sustaining machines.
Being against assisted suicide and euthanasia does not mean that we make every effort to extend life as long as it is technologically possible. Just because human life itself is inviolable does not mean that we have to extend life at all costs, making life unbearable for those who are dying. A common problem in this debate is confusion between letting someone die and making someone die. The most compassionate thing to do in some cases may be to let a loved one die. But that is very different from actively ending their life. With the increasing powers of technology come more responsibility to use it wisely. This applies just as much to whether we choose to use technology or to turn it off.
Slippery Slope arguments are just fear-mongering!
Despite their bad reputation, slippery slope arguments are not always fallacies. In her speech that she gave when introducing this bill, Lalonde stated that those who in the past have argued that a bill like this would lead to a slippery slope that results in the devaluing of all human life have been proven wrong.
Is that really true? Consider what Licia Corbella wrote about this in the Calgary Herald (May 16/09): “The Netherlands has been practising the killing of patients for about 30 years. It was made legal on April 1, 2002. Euthanasia in the Netherlands started out as “mercy killing” only for terminally ill, elderly people with full mental faculty who repeatedly ask for death. Now in the Netherlands, anyone over the age of 16, suffering from mental anguish, can seek physician-assisted suicide. What’s more, now mildly deformed infants are being killed in the Netherlands. In a March 2005 New England Journal of Medicine report called The Groningen Protocol, it is revealed that babies born with spina bifida, cleft palate and other abnormalities are being killed by Dutch physicians.”
In 1949 Dr. Alexander, one of the investigators in the Nuremberg Trials that prosecuted the Nazi’s for their heinous crimes, wrote an article in the New England Journal of Medicine where he revealed some telling observations from the trials:
Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitudes of physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic to the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted, and finally all non-Germans.
Wake up Canadians. Learn from those who went before us and speak out against this legislation. Go to www.ARPACanada.ca for a list of action items to consider. The number one action item is to pray about this matter. Then, follow that up by going with some friends, church members, or your local ARPA group and visit your MP to discuss this. Be sure to call or email ARPA Canada (1-866-691-2772 or [email protected]) if you need help. Also, make use of the information package from the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (1-877-439-3348).
We oppose legislation that would legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide because:
- It violates the fundamental principle that all human life must be protected and cared for regardless of ability or age.
- Once this principle is struck down, there is no way to objectively draw a line at which point some human may live and others should die. The basic right to life becomes subjective to the powerful in society.
- It violates the patient-doctor trust that is essential to health-care.
- It forces the most vulnerable people in society to have to justify their existence in the face of a law that would allow them to be killed without any justification beyond their illness or disability.
- It results in giving up on those who need care most, rather than providing physical and emotional support to assist them through difficult times.
- It ignores the reality that a life with disabilities can still be valuable and enriching both to the person with the disabilities and to the rest of society.