Euthanasia on the Horizon



September 18, 2007

We won the early battles, but we may be losing the war

By Mark Penninga (

[Action Update: The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has prepared some sample letters to help you with writing a letter, email, or postcard to your MP.] 

In June, while many families were considering where to go for their family vacation, Nova Scotia resident Eric MacDonald took his wife on a trip to Zurich, Switzerland. But their destination was no vacation. Eric brought his 38-year-old wife to an assisted suicide clinic where her life was ended. Terminally ill with multiple sclerosis, Elizabeth did not want to go on living and both physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are illegal in Canada. “I wish to heavens she was still here, but I couldn’t ask her to go on suffering that way,” said Eric, according to Macleans magazine.

This is yet another story that the Canadian mainstream media has covered in recent years, always appealing for sympathy towards those who want to “die with dignity,” a rhetorical way of saying being killed under the hand of a health care professional. Our society likes to believe it is compassionate and therefore is being won over by the “death with dignity” arguments. Many Christians are also confused about what it means to be compassionate to those who are dying, slowly buying into the arguments of our humanistic culture. Even many of us who are firmly rooted in the Biblical teaching that human life is sacred at every stage and ability are asleep to the direction that our country is going and are neglecting to testify to worth that God has given to everyone of us. While the law is still on our side, now is the time for us to get informed and active and be a light to our culture with the good news that every human is valuable and worthy of our love and care.

Looking back: Rodriguez v. British Columbia

If you are blessed with a good memory, the name Sue Rodriguez will bring to mind the terminally ill woman who went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to legally have a physician end her life. The Supreme Court made its decision in 1993 with a narrow 5-4 ruling that Rodriguez should not be allowed a physician-assisted suicide because the principle of the sanctity of life could not be trumped by her right to liberty and security of the person.

With this victory in their pocket, most pro-lifers have largely dismissed the possibility of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia in Canada and have instead focused on abortion and reproductive technologies such as stem cell research. But a closer examination of the Rodriguez case, along with the direction that Canada is going with its increasing secularization, should make us rethink our ambivalence and become proactive in defending the lives of the aged and terminally ill.

Dignity vs. sanctity: the power of words

Looking a little deeper into the Rodriguez court decision reveals that there were two competing principles vying for two very different outcomes – human dignity and the sanctity of human life. But how is it possible that the concept of human dignity competes against the belief in human life being sacred and worthy of protection? Does not dignity mean a very similar thing? The answer is apparent in the reasons given by the judges for their decisions in both this case and the 1988 case of R. v. Morgentaler which struck down Canada’s abortion law. Beginning with the Morgentaler case, the Supreme Court began to accept the pro-choice argument that dignity is about protecting our individual autonomy – our ability to make choices about our lives in keeping with our own wants and desires. Understood this way, protecting human dignity means protecting our ability to make choices for ourselves rather than to be told that we cannot do something. This explains why pro-euthanasia advocates speak of their desire for legalized euthanasia as death with dignity. As Christians, we know that our worth comes from God who created us in His image, set us apart from the rest of creation, and still lives in a special relationship with us. As a result, our dignity is intrinsic and not something that can be lost as a result of sickness or disability.

In R. v. Rodriguez, all of the judges bought into the argument that Lou Gehrig’s disease was robbing Sue Rodriguez of her dignity because it was taking away her ability to make choices and carry them out. With the emphasis that the Court had placed on the right for individuals to make decisions for themselves, why didn’t they let her use her autonomy to end her life? Nearly half the judges felt this way, but a slight majority argued instead that the right to liberty and security of the person (found in Section 7 of the Charter) had to work alongside the right to life, which is also found in Section 7.

Speaking for this majority, Justice Sopinka explained that security of the person cannot include a right to end one’s life “as security of the person is intrinsically concerned with the well-being of the living person.” He goes on to justify his reason by stating that “This argument focuses on the generally held and deeply rooted belief in our society that human life is sacred or inviolable (which terms I use in the non-religious sense described by Dworkin… to mean that human life is seen to have a deep intrinsic value of its own).”

In essence, the Supreme Court relied on a secular understanding of the concept of the sanctity of human life to deny Rodriguez the right to a physician-assisted suicide. This puts the Rodriguez decision on precarious ground since many things have changed in the years subsequent to the court’s decision and it is doubtful that the Court would deny a wish for assisted suicide today.

Of course, I cannot make this claim without an explanation. Nearly a year ago, Iain Benson, the director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, wrote a blog posting on the topic of how religious concepts (such as sanctity) are being used in Canada despite the fact that we live in a post-religious age. Equating it with blasphemy, Benson explains that, “it is interesting to consider how terms, rich in meaning and part of an overall framework that supports them in one period, can still be used when the framework that supported them has been removed in another. In short: a great many people use religious terms, but attach no doctrinal significance to them.” That is exactly what the Supreme Court did by speaking of the sanctity of life “in the non-religious sense.”

That may be interesting to note, but what is its significance? Benson argues that the use of religious terminology by secular people is part of an attempt to benefit from the power that is associated with the term, while denying its original meaning. Applying this to sanctity, it is evident that the narrow majority of the Court thought that it would be dangerous to open the door to assisted suicide in Canada, but they needed something powerful to defend their decision that goes beyond technical arguments about a lack of safeguards to prevent accidental deaths. They recognized that the Christian belief of the sanctity of human life, which ultimately comes from God creating us in His image, gives a powerful reason for treating all humanity with value. Although Canada was already secular at the time of the Rodriguez decision, there was still a basic recognition that humans are separate from animals and worthy of protection. Therefore, just as Benson explained how religious concepts are used in a post-religious age, the Court was still able to benefit from the power that is still attached to the word sanctity.

Pro-lifers were happy with the decision because it was a ruling against euthanasia. But as Benson points out, when religious concepts are being used while not being supported by their original meaning, they eventually lose their power and a secular society will choose to get rid of them altogether because they become more of a hindrance than a help. After all, our culture does not instantaneously reject its religious principles; it is a slow and thoughtful process. This is exactly what is happening with the concept of sanctity and pro-choice advocates realize this full well. They know that if a similar case were to come before the Supreme Court now it may result in a very different outcome. Sanctity of life will be trumped by the secular values of choice, autonomy, and equality. This also explains why the concept of sanctity has only been used by the Court once in all of the years since the decision, and even in that one time it was merely a passing reference.

Shifting public opinion and demographics

A good indication of how Canada has become increasingly secular and no longer understands or respects the sanctity of life is the polls which measure public opinion on physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. Most recently, a June 2007 poll conducted by Ipsos Reid found that 71% of Canadians were in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

As the story in the sidebar explains (see action item #3) explains, this high number is a result of a lack of information provided about the dangers and implications of assisted suicide. Added to this, Canadian demographics are shifting with an ever-increasing percentage of seniors making up our population. At the same time, Canadians are waiting longer to have children and then having fewer of them. This will result in less family care for the elderly, leaving the state to fill the gap. No doubt seniors are facing this reality and many are in fear about what will happen to them in the last stage of their life. They may not like the idea of euthanasia, but at least it helps them to conquer the fear of being neglected when they are unable to care for themselves.

Legislation around the corner

Canada currently has a Conservative government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stated that he is not in favor of assisted suicide and his government has no plans to introduce legislation about it. But that does not stop private members bills from addressing the issue.

Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde introduced Bill C-407 in 2005 which would have legalized physician assisted suicide. The Liberal government at that time did not support the bill, but only because the bill was too vague and open to misinterpretation, not because the Liberals were against assisted suicide itself. Since then, Lalonde has indicated that she is fine-tuning the bill and wants to bring it back to Parliament soon. In a recent Macleans article on the pressure to reintroduce euthanasia, Lalonde is quoted as justifying her actions by saying “Someone’s religion [a reference to the Court’s use of sanctity to deny assisted suicide] must not become others’ law.” Since the Conservative government has promised to give a free vote to its MPs on issues that deal with conscience, it is not impossible that this legislation will be passed even under their government.

What we can do

As Christians, we can be much more effective with the truth of God’s Word if we are proactive in addressing issues such as the sacredness of life, rather than reacting to attempts made to trample over what God has made good. This is a good example where we can be proactive because there currently are no cases before the courts or legislation before Parliament. Whether you care about politics or not, everybody has a responsibility to stand up for God’s truth, including the sixth commandment.

Here are some steps we can all take right now:

1) Pray

Pray for recognition of the sanctity of life in our nation: The Bible urges us to pray for those in authority over us, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Tim 2:1-2)

2) Get informed

Learn arguments about why life needs to be protected at all stages. A good book to read is Final Wishes: A Cautionary Tale on Death, Dignity and Physician-Assisted Suicide by Paul Chamberlain. If you have Internet access visit the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition website at for articles and newsletters. Also visit Focus on the Family’s website and click on “life.” For more scholarly articles, go to the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada’s website at and click on “issues” and then “life issues.”

3) Speak

Talk about this with your colleagues, friends, students, and anybody that you may have an opportunity to discuss this with. Information is a powerful weapon to destroy the lies that abound in our culture. A good example of this can be learned from the experience of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition when they conducted a poll on this topic. Alex Schadenberg, the executive director of the EPC relates this story:

“In March 2005 the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition participated in an Angus Reid survey of 1122 participants from across Canada. Our polling found that the responses of Canadians differed based on the context of the assisted suicide question.

“Our poll included a series of 10 questions. The first question was worded such that it resulted in a similar support for assisted suicide as the current Ipsos Reid poll, which indicated 71% support. When analyzing the first question we found that very few people strongly supported assisted suicide, with nearly all of the support for assisted suicide falling into the “somewhat support” category. This was the same experience we had with our poll in 2001.

“We then asked eight further questions related to disability rights, palliative care, promotion of suicide techniques, the need to protect vulnerable Canadians, etc., with the 10th question being a near restatement of the first question. The response to the 10th question was that: 45% of Canadians supported the legalization of assisted suicide, 39% of Canadians opposed the legalization of assisted suicide while 16% were undecided. In other words, when people have a chance to think about assisted suicide with respect to its related issues and societal impact, the support drops.” [Emphasis added, quote taken from]

4) Write

Get your pen out and send a letter about the value of human life to the editor of your local newspaper or send an email or letter in response to biased news coverage on this topic. You do not need to be an expert writer to communicate your views and experiences. What matters is that you actually send it.

5) Visit or call your local MP

Talk to him or her about what they are doing to defend the sanctity of life. If they are pro-life, thank them for their work and encourage them to get proactive so that other MPs hear the truth on this issue. If they are not pro-life, take the time to provide them with some articles and arguments that you find convincing. Contact information is available at or by calling 1-866-599-4999.

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