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Euthanasia—Pre-empting the Next Battle

To pre-empt the next battle—the call for euthanasia—the Church will have to be visibly in the forefront caring for the vulnerable and demonstrating family and community responsibility.

On my way to the airport, the shuttle driver asked me what I was doing in Edmonton.

As the baby boomer generation enters retirement, more attention will be given . . . to end-of-life issues.

"I attended a conference on euthanasia," I said.

"Oh, that's a good subject. I believe in euthanasia! I don't think anyone should die in pain," the driver exclaimed.

By the time we arrived at the airport, armed with all of the information I had received at the conference, I was able to tell him that only one to two percent of those who die are suffering with pain at the end of their life and that is easily managed with medication, or in extreme conditions, with induced sleep. Nearly everyone, up to three days before their death, is actually up and walking around! "You've changed my mind!" the driver said. "I didn't know that."

In the time it took to drive to the airport, now armed with the correct information, this one person was able to make an informed decision on a very important subject. It is a dangerous thing—making decisions about life and death matters, with incomplete information. Consider these Canadian attitudes:

• 69 percent favour euthanasia or assisted suicide if a mentally competent terminally ill person wants to die and asks someone for help EPC
• 48 percent favour euthanasia or assisted suicide if someone is in the final stages of terminal illness, is unable to express his/her own wishes, but the caregivers want to take their life EPC
• 37 percent favour euthanasia or assisted suicide when parents of a severely disabled child want to take the life of their child EPC
• 51 percent want a lighter penalty for someone who kills someone who is sick or disabled EPC
• 28 percent say a mentally competent person should have the right to have their life ended by another, whatever the reason EPC
• 60 percent agree that if legalized some would seek to end their lives due to depression or feeling like a burden. EPC

(EPC= Environics Research Group, The Focus Canada Report, for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, 2001)

These statistics confirm the need for conferences and education on euthanasia, even though at present there is no active public debate. We need to talk about euthanasia and assisted suicide to pre-empt the next battle. By the time the debate gets to Parliament, it might be too late. In the last Parliament one of the MPs who spoke to Bill C-407, which called for the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, was in favour of the Bill because her daughter has M.S. and wants assisted death as an option.

In Canada, euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal (euthanasia is actively ending another person's life—sometimes referred to as mercy killing; assisted suicide is providing the means so that someone can end their own life). Isn't it interesting that calls for euthanasia have increased during the period of greatest advance in medicine? So what is driving the euthanasia debate?

There are many reasons why calls for euthanasia have increased: the devaluation of human life, personal autonomy (individual rights), the 'rationing' of healthcare, people not wanting to be a 'burden' etc. Consider just one of the arguments: the claim that it's a matter of individual rights. Remarkable that those who want to do something because it is their right require someone else to perform the deed: people who want abortions need someone else to do it (doctors, nurses and medical students can attest to the extent to which their right not to be involved with abortion is challenged); people who want same-sex marriage need others to perform the ceremony (the current debate concerns the problem of forcing those 'others,' if they disagree, to perform the ceremony); people who want euthanasia or assisted suicide need someone else to do the killing or to provide the means for their death.

So, it's not really about protecting or procuring one's own rights. It is about limiting someone else's rights so you can have what you want.

For instance, in the Canadian Medical Association's journal, there is an active debate on abortion. Some are saying that it should be mandatory for a physician whose conscience doesn't allow him/her to perform an abortion to be compelled to give a referral to someone who will perform the abortion. Marriage commissioners who, for religious reasons, cannot marry same-sex couples are being forced to give up their licenses. It is not difficult to imagine that if euthanasia is legalized, medical practitioners could be compelled to act against their religious beliefs and consciences as well.

As the baby boomer generation enters retirement, more attention will be given in the years ahead to end-of-life issues. That is an opportunity for the Church. Early on, it will be up to the Church to provide an alternative to the culture of euthanasia. Social trends will likely encourage euthanasia and assisted suicide—a natural extension of the "give me what I want because I have a right to it" attitude that is increasingly prevailing in our society. The trend within the Church must be to provide care for the vulnerable and to create a strong culture of life, with a healthy respect for the end-of-life process.

God Himself requires us to be our brother's and our sister's keeper and to have a measure of responsibility for one another. Jesus' parable about the Good Samaritan tells us that the one who behaved like a neighbour to the injured traveler was the one who got involved (not the religious leaders who walked on the other side of the road).

To pre-empt the next battle—the call for euthanasia—the Church will have to be there, in the forefront, caring for the vulnerable and serving as an example of family and community responsibility.

Douglas Cryer is the director of public policy for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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