What is a good death?
by Jack Taylor
St. Francis said it best: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” So said the notice.
Dave and his family agreed with doctors that 11 am would be the end. At 11 am, there would be no more smelling of roses or perfume; no more hearing of bird song, symphonies and children’s laughter; no more rainbows or sunsets; no more hugs, kisses, tears or memories. The thing focused on was that there would be no more pain and suffering for Dave – at least that’s what they assumed. Dave was a church goer and a man of faith so the family holds onto hope.
At least 7,000 Canadians have taken a lethal injection to end their lives in the first few years of the past legislation. Upcoming changes to the Medical Assistance in Dying Law will open the door to many more who will be eligible to escape their current suffering. During the Quebec portion of the recent national leader’s debate, Prime Minister Trudeau stated that, within six months of his re-election, he would make it easier for Canadians to die.
Making it easier for people to die
The small group tasked with decision-making for Dave’s death didn’t wait for the government to adjust the June 2016 medical assistance in dying law section, struck down by Quebec judge Christine Baudouin when she singled out the phrase which said the natural death of the sufferer needed to be “reasonably foreseeable.” In a 197-page judgment, she stated that, “The reasonably foreseeable natural death requirement deprives both individuals and claimants of their autonomy and their choice to end their lives at the time and in the manner desired.”
The Liberal government embraced their previous end-of-life option as an approach which balanced the protection of the vulnerable while permitting the death wish of a portion of the population. Legal experts and Dying with Dignity advocates argued from the law’s implementation that it didn’t comply with the Carter decision which forced the government to act in the first place.
Protecting the vulnerable
Representatives with groups like the Council of Canadians with Disabilities expressed concern that the new ruling would be understood as an invitation to die for those struggling with mental and physical challenges. The worth and value of non-productive people has been diminished.
After a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling focused on the primacy of personal rights, Francis Shaeffer warned the Christian community on the direction we were headed. In a movie called, Me Before You, a quadriplegic ends his life and his family says he made a courageous, noble, dignified decision. Joni Eareckson Tada, herself a quadriplegic for 50 years, says “No, he took the cowardly way out.” She says that 39 percent of evangelicals now believe that it’s okay to “provide mercy killing with 3 grams of phenobarbital.”
Tada, in an August 28, 2018 interview with Focus on the Family, stated that “when people start viewing rights as willful determinations and they disengage rights from their moral basis in the word of God, then the exercise of rights becomes nothing but a national competition between who is more victimized than who and I think we see that happening in our country now. We have become a haranguing group of individuals who have radicalized rights, based on the interpretation from 1973’s ruling, and now no one does anything for the common good of the country, all moral consensus has unraveled, and we’ve become a bunch of spoiled brats who just want what we want when we want it.”
Deepest understanding of God from suffering
Like Tada, Elisabeth Elliot believed that some of her greatest understandings of God came from her deepest sufferings. “Out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.”
A time when the law protected the sanctity of life
Back in 1993, 42-year-old Sue Rodriguez, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis applied to the Supreme Court of BC to have a physician set up technology by which she could end her life if her suffering got too much. The court dismissed her application on the basis of the sanctity of human life. Section 241 (b) of the Code was deemed constitutional. Consciously choosing death over life, no matter how imminent death was, violated the security of a person. Assisted suicide had been prohibited by Parliament since the crafting of the first Criminal Code. A quarter of a century ago, the State guarded its role as the protector of human life and dignity.
Changes in legislation: the right to die
How things have changed. In February 2015, the Supreme Court struck down parts of the legislation and gave the government until June 2016 to bring it into line with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canadians would now have the right to die and the government obliged with guidelines.
To qualify for Medical Assistance in Dying, Canadians must be at least 18 years old; mentally competent; have a grievous and irremediable medical condition; voluntarily request MAID without being pressured or influenced; and give informed consent to receive MAID at the time of application. You don’t have to be imminently terminal to be eligible but there must be a serious illness, disease or disability in an advanced state of decline where unbearable and unrelieved physical or mental suffering is leading to death which is “reasonably foreseeable.”
Ideally, two health practitioners will independently affirm the patient’s desire and wait ten days for reflection before any application of MAID.
The recent data on euthanasia in Quebec showed that 1331 deaths occurred in a single year (April 1, 2018-March 31, 2019). Thirteen of the deaths did not fulfill the requirements of the law, including three who requested MAID after hip fractures. A family in BC continues to seek answers as to how their physically-healthy family member (Alan Nichols – 62) was approved for euthanasia.
Opening the door to psychological suffering
Plaintiffs appealing the current law cite stories of people starving to death, committing suicide and of travelling to other nations, like Switzerland, to end their life.
Jean Truchon (51 with cerebral palsy and weakening limbs) and Nicole Gladu (73 with polio, left-side paralysis and scoliosis) had incurable, degenerative illnesses when they filed the constitutional challenge and they were permitted to proceed with their request for MAID. The justice noted that, although they weren’t terminally ill the current legislation was “forcing them to endure harsh physical and psychological suffering.” Opening the door to psychological suffering, as a valid reason for ending life, is something physicians, pastors and all professionals should take note of.
Prior to the end of 2019, BC courts heard the case of Julia Lamb (20+ with spinal muscular atrophy). Her death is not reasonably forseeable but she still seeks a decision in line with the Quebec decision won by Truchon and Gladu. While the former Attorney General, Jodi Wilson Raybould, held a strong line on the issue of reasonably foreseeable death, the Prime Minister is now urging a new justice minister to bring in the new laws as soon as possible.
Andre Picard (September 11, 2019) noted that “it has been clear that the legal requirement that only people whose natural death was imminent would be eligible for assisted death was unduly restrictive and discriminatory.” The argument focuses on personal autonomy and he notes that as early as 1991 “right-to-die activist Sue Rodriguez… said… ‘If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?’”
Christians have an answer to her question which means we should have different solutions to suffering. Palliative care for ‘image bearers’ has always been a preferred option until now. As lawyer Jay Cameron of the Justice Centre in Alberta states, “medical personnel have always assisted people in dying.”
What about those who conscientiously object?
Where does this leave Christian doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals who conscientiously object to the law? Especially as the debate over MAID moves to consider minors and the mentally ill. Especially as recent figures show that the number of Canadians choosing to die early has jumped by 30 percent. Audrey Parker of Halifax (57) recently chose to have MAID early to avoid the possibility of not being mentally competent enough to give her consent at time of application.
What if dementia and Parkinson’s come into consideration for MAID? Statistics show that over 500,000 Canadians live with dementia, with 25,000 new cases annually. By 2031, an estimated increase of 66 percent will yield 937,000 with Dementia. Over 100,000 Canadians live with Parkinson’s while around 6,600 new cases are added annually. With economic constraints, will there be hidden pressures on those who can no longer give informed consent?
John Carpay, head of the Justice Center in Calgary, advocates that God cares about justice and Christians have the numbers and resources to secure influence. We need to choose priorities like religious freedom, stay informed, stay in for the long haul, stand up to bullies and support allies in the arena fighting for justice and values.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada sees that, even with safeguards MAID includes “unacceptable risks” if extended to minors and those with psychiatric issues. Catholic Bishops stated that assisted death and suicide is “contrary to the most profound natural inclination of each human being to live and preserve life.”
Tada calls on the Christian community to pour resources into better pain management and into palliative or hospice care where people’s social isolation is minimalized. Tada says it is time for Christian spokespersons to “articulate a biblical worldview of suffering” where they can “find virtue in affliction and courage in facing the challenges of disability.” She says that “suffering is the textbook that teaches us who we really are” and it is “God’s choicest tool in molding our character.”
Tada says, “I want my death to be a good death because I’ve lived a good life.”
Palliative Care has long been a chosen option by Christian physicians and care givers. Hospices are set up to provide comfort during the final days of life.
Julia Beazley, of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, in opposition to proposed MAID legislation states that, “Instead, we believe our focus as Canadians must be on extending and improving the availability of high quality palliative care for patients facing terminal illness, or who are nearing the end of life, as well as improving the availability and quality of treatment for individuals suffering from mental illness.”