Physician-assisted death: Where do we go from here?

“A step toward kindness,” so one daily newspaper chose to headline the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to open the way for the decriminalization of physician-assisted death (although the ruling would only come into effect after 12 months in order to allow the government to rewrite the Criminal Code). The words are actually the response of the daughter of the late Gillian Bennet, the 84-year-old who wanted to die “on her own terms and in her own time” once she had become incapacitated either in mind or in body.

If the current prohibition of physician-assisted death is struck down, Canada will be joining a very small group of countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland) and some U.S. states (Oregon, Washington and Vermont) that allow the practice, although preconditions for implementation vary from country to country and state to state.

Compassion and human autonomy seem to be the principal reasons raised by advocates for physician-assisted death for lifting the ban. Indeed, even if one has never had to care for a loved one who is afflicted by a terminal illness and whose suffering has become unbearable because of it, our humanity urges us to want to see it brought to an end as quickly as possible. And from a Christian perspective, it could also be argued that such a step would actually be in keeping with the second half of the Great Commandment (“to love one’s neighbour as oneself”). But then how do we bypass the sixth commandment that prohibits intentionally taking the life of another person?

Suffering and compassion
At the same time, it also appears to be the biblical view that suffering can actually serve to bring us closer to God and strengthen our faith (ie: Rom. 5:3-5). A Catholic view would even argue that suffering actually has redemptive value. Hence the late Pope John Paul II’s insistence that, by his refusal to abdicate despite suffering from debilitating Parkinson’s disease, he was setting an example to all Catholics. On the other hand, as Scott Rae points out in his book, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, a consistent application of this argument would exclude any medical treatment intended to diminish suffering.

By appealing to personal autonomy, advocates of physician-assisted death argue that individuals have the right to make decisions that affect their personal and private life, and that it is often even protected by law. In other words, if marriage and procreation, to name but two, are areas in which a person enjoys almost absolute autonomy, why not include the decision to end life? However, if personal autonomy were to be elevated to a determining principle, what would stand in the way of any person, irrespective of physical or mental condition, to seek a physician assisted death, for one reason or another? Furthermore, underpinning Judeo-Christian ethics is still the firm belief that all life is a gift from God and that he alone decides when it should be ended. 

Of the two reasons for physician-assisted death just mentioned, compassion remains for the Christian perhaps the most difficult one to challenge, since it can be reconciled with a great deal of what Scripture teaches on the subject of concern for those who suffer, whatever the nature of their suffering may be. Does this mean that, at least as far as the issue of physician-assisted death is concerned, what is called for is an approach that is increasingly based on situational ethics, in other words, one that is guided by the particular context and eschews moral or biblical absolutes?

While it is certainly likely that rapid advances in medical technology may alleviate suffering in some cases and even extend life in others, the fact remains that the question of physician assisted death will probably become more complex in the future and require – at least from Christians – an approach that will seek to remain faithful to the biblical notion of the sanctity of life. On the other hand, the Christian ethic of love will always urge us to support those whose suffering has become unbearable and not to add to it through lack of empathy or through any hasty judgment.

  • André Basson is campus minister for the Christian Reformed Church at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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