False compassion

By 
  • April 26, 2007
In challenging the prevailing winds on euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide, the Catholic bishops of Ontario have done the entire country a service. So-called “mercy killing” is a human rights issue, true enough, but it is about the right to live, not the “right” to die.
In its newest pastoral statement, called “Going to the House of the Father,” the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops offers both clear church teaching on the issue and a passionate defence of life argued in terms that anyone could agree with, regardless of their religious beliefs (see Page 20 for the full text).

“The right to life is not a matter for Christians only. It is a human right,” the statement argues. “Our criminal law recognizes this, and both euthanasia and assisted suicide are currently criminal offences. They should remain so. To permit the killing of the disabled, frail, sick or suffering, even if motivated by a misplaced compassion, requires a prior judgment that such lives are not worth living. No life lacks value. No life should be unprotected by the law. No one forfeits the right to life because of illness or disability.”

The bishops point out the sad irony inherent in a situation in which there is an ever louder cry in favour of legalizing euthanasia at the same time as our capacity to care for the sick and dying has so greatly advanced. While Canada dodged a bullet in 2005 when a private members’ bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide died when the federal government fell, the debate continues around the world. Several American states are considering different versions of this kind of legislation and it is only a matter of time before another Canadian politician embraces the cause.

Society enters a gravely dangerous zone when it begins to accept that such life-and-death decisions should be made by ever-fallible humans. It is particularly dangerous to allow the sick and dying — people already distraught with the fear of pain and helplessness — to decide to kill themselves, with state support. It is just as worrisome to ask doctors to make such decisions when they are already under stress to use scarce health-care resources more efficiently. The temptation to be motivated by a desire to open up beds for other desperately sick people is not something we should add to our doctors’ burden.

There is no injustice in our current law. The real injustice lies in the unwillingness of our governments and our health-care systems to allocate real resources to the kind of hospice and palliative care that would ensure the chronically ill and dying never have to contemplate suicide in the first place.

The Ontario bishops have given Catholics the intellectual and moral tools they need to fight this scourge. It is now up to Catholics, lay and religious, to let their voices be heard on behalf of the weak and powerless and oppose any move to legalize euthanasia.

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