Oh, Canada: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Now Just Another Medical Procedure

NEWS ANALYSIS: After the national parliament failed to meet a court-ordered deadline this month, doctor-directed death is no longer a crime anywhere in Canada.

Supreme Court of Canada.in Ottawa.
Supreme Court of Canada.in Ottawa. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

TORONTO — Canada has officially crossed the boundary into a place in which the sick, the suffering and dying can be legally dispatched by lethal injection or a glass of liquid poison.

On June 6, the nation’s laws against assisted suicide and euthanasia evaporated by order of the Supreme Court of Canada, stemming from a ruling made in February 2015. The court gave Canada’s Parliament until June 6 of this year to create new legislation. But as the deadline was missed, euthanasia is no longer considered a crime. Indeed, assisted suicide now carries the same status as any other medical procedure.

In Canada, as elsewhere, supporters of the practice have used the terms “death with dignity” and “medical aid in dying” to describe what used to be viewed as killing and punishable under the old law. Most of us opposed to killing patients use the terms “physician-assisted suicide” or “euthanasia” interchangeably, as both end in the deliberate death of the patient. In the former, patients are given fatal drugs to take home and ingest when they are ready. The latter takes place when a physician actively kills the patient with a hypodermic needle.

The present situation has put many Catholics and other anti-euthanasia activists in a quandary. The vast majority of the House of Commons and Senate, the two chambers of Parliament, are enthusiastic supporters of assisted suicide, which means that petitions, writing letters and demonstrations likely will have little impact.

“We live in morally confusing times, and it looks like things are going to get a lot worse in what Pope St. John Paul II prophetically called a ‘culture of death,’” said Patricia Murphy, assistant professor of moral theology at St. Augustine Seminary in Toronto. “But as people of faith, we must not get discouraged, especially now.”

The Alberta provincial government, for example, ordered police and prosecutors not to lay charges against a medical team who kill a consenting patient “who is suffering intolerably with a grievous and irremediable condition,” the Globe and Mail reported.

Other provinces have suggested that doctors who plan to practice euthanasia get a court’s permission first.


A License to Die

The term “grievous and irremediable” were the terms used in the 2015 court decision as qualifications for state-sanctioned killing. The phrase does not mean deadly or near-death. “Grievous” is a subjective definition of discomfort and pain, while “irremediable” simply means chronic.

The court said that no one in such circumstances, even those with psychological problems, should be denied his or her wish to die. It also insisted that while doctors do not have to do the procedure, they must refer to someone who will, something the Catholic Church calls cooperation with evil.

The House of Commons passed Bill C14 on time, but the Senate has held the bill up for not going far enough. The Senate, an appointed body, has demanded that the framework of the bill leave out any reference to death as criteria for a patient to request death.

The woman who brought the original case against the euthanasia ban, Kay Carter, would not have been eligible under C14 for doctor-assisted death because her natural death was not “foreseeable.” Carter, who suffered from a debilitating case of spinal stenosis, died in 2010 at a death center in Switzerland.

In April, Carter’s family told the Toronto Star they hoped the government would change the wording of C14 so those who are suffering but not dying would be eligible for help in committing suicide.

Then in May, the Alberta Court of Appeal criticized the Liberal government for restricting assisted suicide to only those whose dying is foreseeable.

This state of affairs may last for weeks, months or even years, depending on whether the two houses of the Parliament of Canada can agree on what a final bill should look like.


Rejection of Judeo-Christian Morality

There is no doubt, though — no matter whether assisted suicide remains in limbo or is codified into law — that Canada has entered a frightening world in which several thousand years based on Judeo-Christian morality have been rejected. It is as if the Good Samaritan of the Gospels is no longer praised for helping the wounded man, beaten and broken on the side of the road, but is instead lauded for bashing the victim’s skull, all in the name of ending suffering.

“Let us set aside the fact that this transforms the concept of medicine, which is no longer the art of healing and/or accompanying, but only the instrument for eliminating suffering,” said Douglas Farrow, a professor of Christian thought in the faculty of religious studies at Montreal’s McGill University, in a speech on June 3 to the (Canadian) Catholic Civil Rights League in Toronto.

“I continue to marvel at the claim of the court: that one is unjustly deprived of life, if one is resolved to kill oneself at some future point and finds that one must do so sooner rather than later, because one fears that later one may not have the strength, indeed, the autonomy, to follow through on one’s own,” said Farrow, also an author and a frequent contributor to First Things magazine. “What remarkable dexterity, which even the U.S. Supreme Court would be hard-pressed to match. The new logic of fear — fear of suffering — trumps the old logic of the sanctity of life.”

The court ruled last year by a vote of 9-0, in what was called the “Carter Case,” that the laws against assisted suicide violated the Canadian Constitution’s guarantee of “life, liberty and the security of person.”

Carter’s family, along with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Union, decided to pursue the case through the courts even after she had died.


Parallels to Abortion

The situation Canadians find themselves in, at least temporarily, is similar to the issue of abortion. In 1988, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the ban on abortion also violated the same rights. A few years later, the government of the day tried to introduce federal abortion regulations, but the bill never made it out of the Senate. Since then, abortion has essentially been available on demand, with few if any rules regulating the practice, even though successive governments could have reintroduced abortion regulations — and still could.

However, almost 30 years after that decision, no one is holding his or her breath. The Liberal Party of Canada, now the governing party, banned pro-life candidates from running under its banner in the 2015 federal election.

But regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia, most observers believe that Canadian Parliament eventually will pass a bill closer to what the national Supreme Court demanded, putting Canada on par with Belgium and the Netherlands where thousands of people, young and old, dying and not dying, are put to death every year.

For anti-euthanasia Catholics, the looming question is: What now? Campaigns to lobby the government through letters, petitions and demonstrations have failed. The Liberals, who control the House of Commons, promised in the 2015 election that such a bill would be made law.

Still, there are things those who are opposed to this evil can do. Canada only has palliative-care spaces for 30% of those who need it, a situation that has not improved in six years. The current administration of Justin Trudeau still promises to increase palliative care, but many wonder about the sincerity of that pledge.

There is also the embarrassing statistic — according to a 2015 poll, the latest available, which asked about religious identity — that roughly 70% of Catholics either strongly or moderately support euthanasia.

“Like the early Christians, we must encourage and support each other — we need to assure friends and family and even co-workers that they are not alone, that they are not crazy for thinking that killing innocent people is never an acceptable alternative to real suffering. No one can build a culture of life alone,” said professor Murphy of St. Augustine Seminary.

“Catholics need to learn about the difference between ordinary and extraordinary measures. They need to learn what true palliative care is. Most people really mean well and want to do the right thing, but Catholic formation [on these issues] has been sorely lacking.”

Register correspondent Charles Lewis

is a Canadian pro-life activist

who writes from Toronto.