The discussion around assisted suicide in Canada is becoming increasingly volatile. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the law banning assisted suicide, stating that the law, which had made it illegal for anyone to help another end their life, violated a citizen’s Charter Rights. The federal government has until June to deliver a new law. In response, a special Commons-Senate panel was created in order to hear testimony from various experts and ultimately present recommendations to the government. Recently this panel released its report. It recommends that access to doctor assisted dying be made readily accessible at publically funded health-care institutions and not just be limited to the terminally ill. Those with mental illnesses and psychiatric conditions should be able to chose to have a doctor end their life. Even minors, the report states, should be able to have a doctor help end their life.
Many leaders, within the Church and otherwise, have strongly voiced their concerns about the report. They argue against the idea that Catholic Hospitals and doctors and nurses who are opposed to assisted suicide should be forced to help people take their own lives. They argue that if what the panel report comes to pass in Canada, it would have a damaging effect on some of the most vulnerable in our society. Jean Vanier, a man who has dedicated his life to caring for the sick and handicapped, recently pointed out this danger. Those who are dying, the elderly, the handicapped and the mentally ill can feel at times that they are a burden to their families and communities. With the legalization of assisted suicide, they may feel pressured to ask a doctor to end their life. Vanier explained that such an “unconscious inducement” would lead vulnerable individuals “to believe that hastening their own death is a socially generous and responsible act. An ethos that may subtly support such thinking can lead to a deep and subversive betrayal of an individual’s right to live their life out to its natural end.”
Central to the case of those arguing for a person’s right to assisted suicide is the claim that being able to have a doctor end your life allows you to die with dignity. The argument then becomes that Catholics and others who oppose assisted suicide are preventing people from dying with dignity. For those promoting the right to assisted suicide, this is a clever way to frame the debate. After all, who wouldn’t want someone to die with dignity?
We all agree that many people suffer terribly at the ends of their lives and everyone wants such individuals to die with dignity. What we disagree with is what it means to die with dignity.
In the midst of the heated debate after the panel report was released, news broke of the murder of four Missionary of Charity Sisters in Yemen. These sisters, who were part of the religious community started by Mother Teresa, were killed by gunmen along with at least twelve people they cared for. These murdered sisters teach an important lesson about what it means to die with dignity. Before they were killed, they were helping to run a nursing home for disabled and elderly people who have no one else to care for them. From the start, an integral part of Mother Teresa’s work was caring for the dying, helping them to truly die with dignity. Mother Teresa told the story of a man her sisters found dying in a drain, half-eaten by worms. They brought him to their home and cared for him. As he was dying, he told them, “I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.”
The four murdered Missionary of Charity sisters teach us that dying with dignity does not mean possessing the right to have someone else help you end your life. People die with dignity when they are deeply convinced - as a result of the actions of those around them - that they are loved and that their life has value. For many of the most vulnerable people in our society, assisted suicide will erode their sense that their existence is of value and will prevent them from truly dying with dignity.