Euthanasia Coming to Canada
COMMENTARY: And with it, the value of life takes another nosedive.
On Feb. 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada, by a 9-0 ruling, struck down the ban on physician-assisted suicide. The ruling gives Canadian Parliament a year to draft new legislation that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable pain, either physical or mental, to request medical help to end their lives.
The decision is decidedly controversial and sets into focus once again the debate between advocates of the sanctity of life and those who stand by a quality-of-life ethic.
The nine judges may not reflect the mind of the majority of Canadian citizens. They do reflect, however, a mood that has been gaining strength in the country for some time. It is a mood that is the direct result of honoring the choice for abortion. The choice for death at one end of the spectrum is the logical extension of the choice for death at the other. “Choice” is an intoxicating word and shields people from the kind of philosophical and theological thinking that regards life as sacred and therefore inviolable.
Whereas “choice” creates the illusion of personal autonomy, an atheistic climate of opinion reinterprets “dignity” as the quality of an individual’s life rather than an inherent and irremovable value placed in man by God. In the words of the late philosopher/theologian Paul Ramsey, “The most dignity a man ever possesses is a dignity that is alien to him. ... The value of a human life is ultimately grounded in the value God is placing on it.”
Many who hail the Supreme Court’s decision defend it in terms of “dying with dignity.” This defense, however, must reject the notion that interior human dignity is something that cannot be lost. Christ did not die without dignity, nor do the many people who die in war, in accidents or because of illness. Yet even the secular notion of dignity is difficult to defend.
Can it be a dignified death if one requests it and another acquiesces to this request? Can death at the hands of a killer be regarded as “death with dignity”? Does a criminal die with dignity when he receives a lethal injection?
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that man has a twofold dignity: One is an endowment or gift from God; the other is an achievement or acquisition (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 93, a.4).
The first dignity is the result of man’s being created in the image of God. The second comes into being as the result of living in accord with divine law. This second view accords with Vatican II: “For man has in his heart a law written by God. His dignity lies in observing this law” (Gaudium et Spes, 16).
Christ died with dignity in a twofold way: He accepted his death (which was redemptive), and, in so doing, he accepted the will of the Father. The popular expression “death with dignity” accords with neither of these notions of dignity. It centers on a condition, either physical or mental, that appears to be intolerable (despite the enormous progress that medical science has made in pain control).
The original dignity that all people have is their birthright. It is a divine seal that assures them that no matter what misfortunes and hardships assail them, their lives will always have dignity. It refutes the notion that it is better to die with dignity than to live without it, because no life is ever without dignity.
The Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling reflects a truly secular mindset. It is difficult to predict how far-reaching it will be. That depends, to a large extent, on the wisdom of Parliament.
But if the idea that dignity is merely a condition and not an irremovable quality of each person’s being, then, by implication, inalienable dignity becomes a chimera.
In this case, the popular mood will deny an innermost quality that God has given to all of us. It would depreciate the intrinsic value of all Canadians. The new ruling affects a far wider range of people than the comparatively few nine judges sought to protect. As death comes to Canada, the value of life for all its citizens undergoes a drastic depreciation.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a senior fellow
of Human Life International and is an adjunct professor
at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.