Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, right, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, said the Supreme Court’s assisted suicide ruling is a cause of “worry and concern.” Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Canada’s bishops need to challenge ‘cultural mindset’ on assisted suicide

By 
  • September 17, 2015

CORNWALL, ONT. - Bishops need to speak out to emphasize that euthanasia and assisted suicide are “morally reprehensible,” Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith told colleagues at the annual meeting of Canadian bishops.

“We have a role to speak now in the immediate circumstances,” he said, noting the long-term implications of last February’s Supreme Court decision that legalized assisted suicide and gave Parliament one year to draft appropriate legislation.

Smith stressed that Canada’s bishops have a role in challenging the current “cultural mindset” that what is legal is “thereby ethical.”
He warned that even if Parliament succeeds in developing “highly restrictive legislation, it will not survive the inevitable charter challenges.”

“Then it will be open season,” the past president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) said. “As bishops we need to speak very clearly now and underscore how morally reprehensible this situation is. We need to be speaking long term and in a sustained way, to keep alive the truth that this is completely morally unacceptable.”

Smith was speaking during the first day of the Canadian bishops’ annual plenary, held Sept. 14-18. As part of their agenda, the bishops examined their role in fighting euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In his welcoming remarks to almost 90 bishops and eparchs, CCCB president Paul-André Durocher said the Supreme Court’s Feb. 6 decision “to strike down the articles in the Criminal Code that prohibited active euthanasia and assisted suicide is for us a deep cause of worry and concern.”

“The millennial wisdom of the Church compels us to see in this decision a radical shift that can inflect our society in a direction that disparages old age, disease and disability,” Durocher said. “We will take time to seek together how best to respond to the challenges this decision raises not only for Christians but for all Canadian citizens.”

As part of their discussion, the bishops received a presentation from Dr. Catherine Ferrier, the president of the non-religious Quebec-based Physicians’ Alliance Against Euthanasia. A family doctor specializing in caring for elderly patients, Ferrier laid out some of the options facing the federal government.

The first option would be to invoke the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to suspend the Court’s judgment for five years, she said.

However, no one knows who will win the current federal election, and the present Conservative justice minister has said he will not use the override provision.

A second option is for the government to seek an extension of the one-year deadline, she said. A third is no legislative response, leaving a legal void, such as that on abortion after the Court’s Morgentaler decision.

But Ferrier said the government will likely opt for a fourth option, to amend the Criminal Code to “allow the taking of human life or collaboration in suicide.”

Ferrier stressed the fight over assisted death has been both a “political battle” and “a culture war” orchestrated by a well-organized campaign and a series of “galvanizing incidents” regarding high-profile cases of people seeking a physician-assisted death. These helped create the idea that causing a patient’s death was “not only permissible but encouraged as the compassionate thing to do.”

Those examining ways to make the law as restrictive as possible say euthanasia and assisted suicide “must never be considered medical care,” Ferrier said. Assisted death must be invoked “only in extreme cases,” preferably authorized by a judge.

Those who carry out euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide must respect all the criteria and be liable for prosecution if they don’t comply, she said. “Terms must be defined correctly. No euphemisms.”

In a discussion after her presentation, the bishops who spoke seemed to favour speaking to the moral principles against euthanasia and assisted suicide rather than confusing the faithful with seeming support for a restrictive law, which might lead some Catholics to conclude the bishops were okay with euthanasia under some circumstances.

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