MAiD and the meaning of suffering

A culture of death.

We live in confused times. The Government of Canada hosts two websites standing in tension with each other. The first is titled, “Preventing suicide: Warning signs and how to help.” It lists the phone numbers of crisis centres and offers advice for helping those at risk. It then lists the websites of other agencies and of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. So far so good.

The second website is titled, “Medical assistance in dying,” otherwise known by its acronym MAID. It describes the amendments to the Criminal Code mandated by the Supreme Court’s Carter decision (2015) permitting assisted suicide. It then proceeds to tell us who can offer this service to those wishing to end their earthly journeys.

It is difficult to know what to make of such an obvious contradiction. On the one hand, Ottawa is reaching out to save lives. On the other, it appears to facilitate the taking of life. Which is it?

A culture of death

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II famously coined the expression “culture of death” to describe the current state of our civilization. An obvious manifestation of this is a morbid preoccupation with abortion and euthanasia as indefeasible human rights. This grows out of a basic redefinition of freedom itself. In previous generations our personal liberties had generally been understood to function within constraints, most of which were not of our own making.

But in recent decades freedom has come to be understood as the will fulfilling its desires. Under the ideology of expressive individualism, an expanding array of options is now deemed optimal. The more choices I have, the better. If communal standards, mores and traditions obstruct my freedom of choice, then these must be removed.

Ottawa vs. suffering

But of course, the will is never autonomous. We do not choose in a vacuum. Every decision I make is conditioned by a variety of factors, including my upbringing, education, family, friends, workplace, and so forth.

At the moment much of the media, in the grip of this expressive individualism, is telling us that experiencing pain is intolerable. And if so, then perhaps a life of pain is not worth living. What begins as a laudable attempt to alleviate suffering quickly turns into an effort to eliminate the sufferer.

As Christians we recognize that every life inevitably comes with suffering. We may not undergo the extreme adversities of the biblical Job, but each of us must endure the multiple hardships associated with illness, a loved one’s death, natural and human disaster, personal betrayal and disappointment. If Ottawa persists in its confusion on this score, we ourselves need not. In truth we are called to live with suffering, confident that our lives have meaning beyond it as we await their fulfilment at Christ’s return.


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