Faith and Free Thought

It’s an issue that has been understandably drenched in emotionalism and hyperbole for years, but at long last there is some genuine movement. I refer to what is variously called euthanasia, assisted suicide or even compassionate homicide. For a nation as progressive and authentically liberal as Canada our previous lack of conversation has been disastrous, and much of this can be attributed to a government beholden – if not completely sympathetic – to a Christian right, obsessed with the issue. It’s one of the big three for them of course, often the only three. No to abortion, no to gay rights and no to euthanasia. Because they have lost the first two they are fighting like zealots to defend the last.

So of what are we actually speaking here? It’s vitally important to cut through the nonsense and realize that the alternative to dying with dignity is not living; the alternative to dying with dignity is dying without dignity. Dying in pain, anguish and often isolation. Death is never desirable but always inevitable and while we must do all in our power to preserve life, the quality of that life is a major factor.

Quality of life, however, is a politically loaded term. Disability does not denote lack of quality, daily struggle does not denote lack of quality, age does not denote lack of quality. We once revered the elderly as mansions of wisdom, now we tend to see them as slums that are better off demolished. So a civilized society must be extremely careful in how it regards the elderly, the unfit and the unhealthy.

All of this has to be taken into account but part of the problem is that even even ostensibly intelligent and informed writers and commentators have delivered some dreadfully inaccurate and misleading analyses of the subject, caricaturing those who support assisted dying as wild monomaniacs. It prevents a balanced discussion about a vital challenge.

Yet imagine knowing without any doubt that you have a few months, perhaps a year, to live and that most of that time will be experienced – in spite of medication – in daily agony. Or consider someone with a neurological disease, their muscles and movement are wasting away yet their mind is still functioning and they know that one day they will drown within their own body and that there is nothing that can be done. This is the tear-stained, horrific reality of the argument.

Related: The Politics of Love Thy Neighbour

None of this is easy, all of this is profound, but the vast majority of people now agree that a heavily regulated, strictly supervised system of assisted dying is the only humane approach. Teams of doctors and family members would have to concur with the individual’s wishes, time would be required for repeated consideration, every single circumstance would be analyzed. But in the name of God – and I use the word deliberately – we can no longer stand by and allow such suffering to continue merely due to a theological or philosophical technicality.

Ignore the political hysteria about depressed teenagers being killed in Europe or terrible mistakes taking place in Oregon where people are euthanized against their wishes. These are generally false excuses and not cogent arguments. The Dutch example is probably the best and of those who request to die in the Netherlands, one third are declined, another third die before their case is decided and the remaining third are indeed helped to an early death.

The door has now been opened and it is utterly pointless imagining that it can be closed again. What we need is empathy and intelligence on all sides and a reasoned approach to one of the most significant and difficult challenges of modern society. Which means listening before speaking and thinking before reacting. Anybody who has spent time with someone in their final days and has stared pain and fear in the face knows this to be the truth. The tough, tragic but utter truth.