On Friday the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the section of the Criminal Code that outlawed physician assisted suicide. It is now up to Parliament to provide some kind of regulatory statutes to permit doctors to end the lives of their patients.
Simply, euthanasia has arrived in Canada—as always in these matters, not by a process of public consultation and the expression of democratic will, but by court fiat. And I have no great optimism that we will be able to turn back this tide or do much to roll back the inevitable progression every other country has experienced whereby it is applied to broader and broader categories of vulnerable people (children! infants! the clinically depressed! the lonely!) with less and less true consent involved.
It is difficult for me to write about these life issues, because of my passion for them. That fact is, if I said what I really thought about the Supreme Court and the general ‘progressive’ movement in society (why is it seemingly always a progress in finding more people to kill, or forcing more people to participate in the killing?), I would use language that is both unsuitable for a priest and, ummm, unhelpful for advancing public discourse.
No, it appears that euthanasia is a fact of life in Canada for the foreseeable future. May God have mercy on our souls. I will confine myself in this blog post, since it is Sunday and time for our weekly catechism lesson, to giving the Church’s teaching on the matter, so that Catholics at least may form their consciences accordingly and we ourselves may make the decisions that are in accord with God’s laws and right reason.
So here it is, the radical and bizarre Catholic teaching on end of life issues and care of the sick and dying: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Wild, eh? Those wacky Catholics—where do we get this stuff? It is one the most tragic signs of our times that we need to state that it is wrong for one human being to take deliberate steps to end the life of another human being. That this has become an odd doctrine that needs some kind of intellectual defense, rather than the very underpinning that makes it possible for human beings to live together in any kind of social unity. If my doctor can legally kill me, how can I really trust myself to him or her at the time when I am most vulnerable and helpless, when I find myself in the situation where I most need to make that act of trust?
Human life is not given to human beings to end at will. The exceptions to this rule—immediate and necessary self-defense, the very specific cases of soldiers in a just war or the state executing criminals—are well established, rigorously limited, and not to be expanded. There is nothing new here—people have always grown old, become sick, and died—and the Church has never taught that we have the authority to either end our own lives or the lives of another because of that perennial fact.
What is new is the radical expansion of medical technology allowing the extension of old age and illness to hitherto unexperienced prolongation. And the Church does indeed offer a very careful and nuanced teaching here. We are not ‘vitalists’, believing that human life must be extended at all costs and no matter what the burden of suffering upon the patient. We do believe that human life has a beginning (conception) and an end, and this end is the naturally occurring death of the person. It is perfectly moral—in fact it may be in a specific situation immoral not to do so—to suspend further medical interventions in a case where the burdens these are imposing outweigh any possible benefit to the person.
The Church no longer uses the language of ‘ordinary vs. extraordinary means’, as this has not proven to be a helpful tool for moral medical decision making. Rather, it is a matter of ‘benefits vs. burdens’, always understanding that we are not doing anything to cause the death of the person, but rather choosing not to impede the actual dying process that is happening.
The Church also has no difficulty with the managing of pain and other symptoms that detract from the patient’s quality of life, even if the medical intervention has the effect of shortening the person’s life. Here we have the principle of double effect—a single action with two effects, one good and one bad. As long as the intention is to reduce pain and not to kill, this is a perfectly moral course of action.
So that is the basic moral doctrine of the Church: no direct killing of a person is ever permissible, but withdrawal of medical treatment may be, as is appropriate care to reduce suffering even if that hastens death. The application of this rather simple teaching to specific situations does get complex, because human life is complex, and it is wise to seek counsel in these matters.
So that is all I have to say on the subject, at least for now. Since our medical system is in the process of adopting an ethos so radically opposed to the sanctity of human life, it behoves us Catholics and other people of good will to at least know ourselves what our right relationship is to questions of life and death.
I ask my many non-Canadian readers to pray for my home country of Canada which is so in love with death, seemingly, and let us pray for the world which holds human life so cheaply, so much of the time. May our good and merciful God have mercy upon us all.