On Feb. 6, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down that nation’s federal law banning physician-assisted suicide. Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver delivered the following remarks about that court decision and its serious implications for Canadians in his homily during the Mass he celebrated Sunday at Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral.
Last Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, was a sad, even tragic, day for our country. The Supreme Court of Canada erred grievously in stripping Canadians of the protection that, up until then, the law had afforded us against assisted suicide. As Canadians, we are now confronted with the sobering fact that our nation’s highest court has set itself up in direct opposition to the law of God: “Thou shall not kill.” I don’t believe we can exaggerate the gravity of this new situation in which we now find ourselves.
Among the consequences of this ruling is that the government is no longer concerned with protecting human life until its natural end; that the direct killing of another person who asked for it is legally acceptable; and that our nations publicly funded health-care system is now the place for the deliberate killings of human beings.
Margaret Somerville, one of Canada’s leading medical ethicists and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from our own St. Mark’s College, has said the ruling is “a disaster for Canada. … Canada has fallen over the edge of the abyss in legalizing the intentional infliction of death on our most vulnerable citizens — those who are old, frail, disabled, depressed, mentally, physically or terminally ill.”
Moreover, she added, and I agree with her, “This is not an incremental change, but a seismic shift in one of our most important foundational values — respect for human life at both the individual and societal levels. … I believe that future generations will look back on this decision, in the light of its future consequences, as the most important, harmful and regrettable ethical, legal and public-policy decisions of the 21st century.”
What exactly did the Supreme Court rule? It rendered “the criminal prohibition invalid” for anyone — and not just doctors — to provide assistance in dying: in other words, to intervene directly to end another’s life.
Now, the court wants Parliament, within a year, to draw a new law, which, at very least, must allow physicians to assist in the suicide of those suffering from what it calls “grievous and irremediable medical conditions” (and it does not say that those conditions must be terminal). Let’s be clear here: For a doctor to assist in killing a patient is never a form of healing.
The Supreme Court's decision in no way changes the firm Catholic conviction about reverence for life until natural death. I repeat what is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as her irrevocable teaching: “An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, our Creator” (2277).
Relying on both faith and reason, the Holy Father recently stated: “Human life is always sacred and always has ‘quality.’ … Human life is always sacred, valuable and sacrosanct. As such, it must be loved, defended and cared for.”
What Can Be Done?
The question arises for us as Christians and as Canadians: What can we do? What must we do in light of this decision? I have three simple suggestions about a course of action.
First, let’s deepen our compassion for those who are suffering from severe pain of every kind. Secondly, let us also work to ensure that palliative care becomes a priority in our care of the sick and dying. And lastly, let us do all we can so that any future legislation will provide the greatest protection possible to both the suffering and to the health-care workers who care for them.
Compassion for the suffering:
To begin with, in the Gospel, Christ calls each of us to do everything in our power to serve the most vulnerable in our society. Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) is just one of the many, many examples of Jesus’ mission of compassionate healing of the sick. Jesus reminds us, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Likewise, as his followers, we must strive to eliminate suffering, but never at the price of a false compassion of extinguishing the lives of those who suffer.
As Pope Francis has repeatedly urged us, we must be more intentional in fostering solidarity with those at the “periphery” of our society: the weak, the disabled, those who are trafficked, the sick and the dying — the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters. Among those vulnerable are certainly to be counted those suffering and tempted to end their own lives.
We conquer evil by good. And we do this by answering the call of the sick and suffering to meet their needs for understanding, comfort, encouragement and accompaniment. Our closeness and affection can make them feel more loved and comforted. Remember that “time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son, who ‘came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Matthew 20:28).
We must all be ready — and not merely the health-care professionals — to help those suffering who are on the last stretch of their earthly existence, as they prepare for death, that passage toward the tender embrace of the Heavenly Father, who is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:8).
Increasing the availability of palliative care:
At the root of the desire for assisted suicide is the sad reality that adequate palliative care is often unavailable. This lack can lead to thoughts of suicide. Requests for this intervention are a cry to end suffering.
We cannot and should not ignore the pleas of those who are suffering, demanding though this may be. The compassionate response must be to provide social, emotional and spiritual support and the best pain-management and palliative care possible. We now have, Deo gratias, the capability of controlling pain in nearly every case, and we certainly have the ability to overcome isolation and loneliness by our actions.
Here, it is necessary to stress once again the need for more palliative-care centers, which offer the sick the human compassion, medical assistance and spiritual accompaniment their dignity demands. “This is a right belonging to every human being, one which we must all be committed to defend.”
In order to provide help for those who suffer, we shall have to mobilize our energies to convince government, the healing professions, as well as hospitals, health authorities and care facilities to ensure truly equal and inclusive access to palliative care for every Canadian.
Working for the best possible legislation:
The last suggestion I have by way of response is to encourage you to cooperate with all other men and women of goodwill who are dismayed by the court’s decision to overturn legislation that had been designed to protect those tempted to end their lives.
Canadians now have no such protection. Until such a law has passed, and Parliament has a year to work on this, it’s quite possible for assisted suicide to take place. “This is the ugly prospect that few seem to recognize as a result of the decision.”
If Parliament fails to enact a new law within a year, physician-assisted suicide will remain totally unregulated, with all the dire consequences one can imagine. If recent history is any guide, we genuinely risk never having any such law. This was the situation when abortion was decriminalized [in 1988], and the Supreme Court asked Parliament to enact a law regulating it. We still have no loss of any limits on killing the unborn. Let’s hope that we will not repeat the same situation with regard to assisted suicide.
Now is the time to talk to and petition your elected representatives to work to limit the harm done by the Supreme Court’s decision by supporting restrictive legislation regarding physician-assisted suicide. And, secondly, ask them to support legislation that would prioritize allocating resources to improve the availability of palliative care across Canada.
As we ponder this momentous ruling of our nation’s highest court, let us pray that the gifts of the Holy Spirit will guide all of us in our response: Above all, that the gifts of wisdom, right judgment and courage will flourish among us.
Moreover, we cannot fail to proclaim the gospel of life with both vigor and joy: that every life has an inherent God-given dignity from the moment of conception until life’s natural end. And let the words of St. Paul we heard in today’s second reading ring out in our minds and hearts: “If I proclaim the Gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
The mission ahead of us is not committed only to a few. Rather, it is mine; it is yours; it is ours.
With God’s help, which he offers in this Eucharist, may we fulfill this obligation to proclaim the Gospel for the welfare of all our brothers and sisters.