Why the Supreme Court of Canada's decision on assisted suicide changes everything and nothing

Job 7:1-7, Mark 1: 29 - 39 (5th Sunday in OT, year b)

This Ruling Changes Everything. Among the many recent newspaper headlines, this one stands out. The headline refers to the decision taken by the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the law prohibiting assisted suicide. If this action does not concern you, it should. This ruling changes everything.

Suicide has always been viewed as a tragedy to be prevented.  Most still think this way. On January 28th, many Canadians participated in Bell Let’s Talk Day. The purpose of this event was to get people talking about mental illness. Great awareness was raised for those who suffer - often silently - from mental illness. In their suffering some are inclined to end their own life. During this day, numerous people remembered the comedian Robin Williams who took his own life in August. We desire to do whatever we can to prevent this tragedy from happening to anyone else. Getting people talking about mental illness and the help available is a good start.  The law struck down by the Supreme Court did more. It was meant to protect those inclined to end their own life. The law made it a criminal offense to assist someone to commit suicide or counsel them to do so. In short, the law made it illegal to contribute to a tragedy.

This Ruling Changes Everything. No longer is suicide viewed as a tragedy to be prevented. Rather, the Supreme Court ruled that people have a right to have help ending their lives. Society now has a duty to assist people to commit suicide. No longer is suicide a tragedy to be prevented, but a public service. Language surrounding the issue has changed in a subtle, intentional way. People do not speak about “assisted suicide” but rather  “doctor assisted death”. The vocation of doctors has always been to alleviate suffering. Now they will be obliged to eliminate those who suffer.

Normally when people talk about assisted suicide, the type of situation they have in mind is of someone whose death is imminent and unavoidable. Assisted suicide, people argue, simply brings about the inevitable in a compassionate manner. It would surprise many people to learn that the Supreme Court has very different cases in mind. The court ruled that any competent adult has a right to assisted suicide provided their medical condition causes them enduring and intolerable suffering. What is surprising is the scope of the ruling. Significantly, the suffering can be either physical or psychological. More shocking, the condition causing the suffering does not have to be terminal (meaning that the person is dying from it), simply incurable.

The ramifications of the Supreme Court ruling are troubling. Judging from other nations which have legalized assisted suicide, this is just the beginning. In Belgium for example, children are permitted to be euthanized, providing they get the permission of their parents. Sadly, many weak, dying and elderly members of our society feel that they are a burden to those around them. How long before the “right to die” is perceived by such vulnerable people as an “duty to die”? This ruling changes everything. Suicide is no longer seen as a tragedy to be prevented.

How do we respond? In this, nothing has changed: we respond as Christ would.

Jesus broke through social barriers to care for the suffering. At the heart of the debate on assisted suicide are real people who really suffer. We need to act like Jesus and do all we can to be close to them. So great was Jesus’ desire to comfort Peter’s suffering mother-in-law that he was willing to break a number of social and religious taboos to be close to her. Jesus took her by the hand - an unacceptable gesture for those not in the woman’s immediate family. Jesus healed on the Sabbath - a violation (according to many Jews) of the law and an offense which separated one from the community. Jesus willingly risked their scorn. In the gospel, Christ cares for the ill and those possessed by demons. In other words, He was attentive to the suffering of the entire person. In the first reading, we heard about Job. His story shows that physical anguish is so often accompanied by mental and spiritual suffering. Those who suffer can feel isolated and without hope. Jesus shows true compassion for the suffering, being close to them and doing what he can to alleviate their pain while always respecting their human dignity.

As followers of Jesus, our best response to the Supreme Court decision is to care for those who suffer, protecting them from the tragedy of suicide. Like Christ, we may have to break through social barriers to do so. People will increasingly argue that assisted suicide is a compassionate thing to do. After the court’s decision, Archbishop Miller released a statement outlining how we can show true compassion to those who suffer. Two points stand out. First, we need to call upon the federal government to enact legislation which will provide all possible legal safeguards for those who are vulnerable to suicide. Second, we must advocate that adequate palliative care be available for all. In palliative care, “we have the technology to control pain, and we have the ability to overcome loneliness and despair.”  The Archbishop explains that “at the root of the desire for assisted suicide is the fact that adequate palliative care is often unavailable, which can lead to thoughts of suicide.” In addition, I think we can all promote and make better use of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. In this Sacrament, Jesus continues His ministry of healing, giving the sick the grace to suffer with hope, knowing Christ is with them. Whenever Catholics are admitted to the hospital they should inform the staff that they would like to visited by a priest. If you are a loved one are not in the hospital and would like to receive this Sacrament, simply contact your parish.

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court is a terrible mistake which will greatly harm our country. In many negative ways this ruling changes everything. In the way we think and act, however, it changes nothing. We will continue to follow Jesus and His way. We will continue to care for those who suffer. We will continue to view suicide as a tragedy to be prevented.