Margaret Somerville, he founder of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, says the world will look back at the legalization of euthanasia with regret. Photo by Glen Argan

World will regret euthanasia spread, bioethicist says

By  Glen Argan, Catholic Register  Special
  • December 2, 2016

EDMONTON –The onset of state-sanctioned euthanasia represents a “seismic shift” in values that the world will someday regret, said one of Canada’s pre-eminent bioethicists.

“I believe history will see the legalization of euthanasia as the most world-changing decision of the 21st century, and that they will view it with enormous regret,” said Margaret Somerville in a Nov. 26 lecture.

Among the moral values rejected by legalizing euthanasia are respect for authority, the common good and a sense of sanctity, she said.

“I believe we all need a sense of the sacred whether or not we are religious.”

Somerville, the founder of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, recently took a position at Notre Dame University in Sydney, Australia. During a brief return visit to Canada, she lectured at events in Saskatoon, Edmonton and Montreal.

In Edmonton, speaking at Providence Renewal Centre during an event sponsored by the centre and Newman Theological College, she said proponents of traditional values need to find ways to convince supporters of progressive values to reject practices such as euthanasia.

“We’re never going to coerce the progressive-values people to think differently, but we have a very good chance of persuading them,” she said.

One crucial step to that end is to be adamant about eliminating the pain and suffering of the dying without killing the person along with their pain, she said. Society has lost its ability to find meaning in suffering, something that used to happen in a religious context.

In their judgment in the Carter case which legalized euthanasia in Canada, the Supreme Court justices used the words “suffer” or “suffering” 212 times, she noted.

Somerville recalled that when she began speaking of “the secular sacred” about 10 years ago, “everybody got mad at me.” Religious people maintained she was denigrating the sacred, while secularists and atheists said she was trying to impose religion on them.

Yet perspectives such as atheism and environmentalism are secular religions, Somerville said. “It’s a lot better if people have secular religions than no religion at all.”

That sets the ground for dialogue in which those with traditional values can argue that secularists have much in common with them, she said. “That’s a very important move.”

For example, instead of speaking of the sanctity of life — a term secularists reject — one should emphasize “a deep respect for human life.”

After 40 years at McGill University in Montreal, Somerville recently moved to Australia to take on new challenges. She is helping develop a specialization in bioethics at the school of medicine at Notre Dame University in Sydney.

Working with Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, also an internationally known bioethicist, Somerville says, “We’re going to give them some high-powered bioethics.”

Notre Dame is a Catholic university, but has many non-Catholics studying in its medical school, she said in an interview. As well, in any university, it is difficult to find people who teach traditional values.

In the 30 years since Somerville founded McGill’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, she has been a prominent spokesperson for maintaining traditional values in relation to a wide range of issues, including assisted suicide, same-sex marriage and abortion.

(Argan is a writer in Edmonton.)

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