Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht, Netherlands, is seen in Cornwall, Ontario, Sept. 26. The Dutch cardinal spoke to Canadian bishops about the "slippery slope" of euthanasia. CNS photo/CNS photo/Francois Gloutnay, Presence

Dutch cardinal warns Canadian bishops about 'slippery slope' of euthanasia

  • September 27, 2016

CORNWALL, Ont. – The Archbishop of Utrecht advised Canadian bishops to continue to decry euthanasia and assisted suicide so that Canada never emulates the Netherlands, where assisted killing can now be administered to psychiatric patients and the handicapped.

Dutch Cardinal Willem Eijk, addressing the annual plenary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sept. 26, said the slippery slope is real based on the experience of the Netherlands, the first country to allow euthanasia and assisted suicide.

“It’s not too easy to put the feet on the brakes,” he said.

“That is something experience teaches us.”

Eijk said bishops should continue to make moral arguments in the public square against assisted killing and at the same time make the case for true palliative care. This is particularly true for Canada, he said, because Canadians are moving much faster in a shorter time frame.

“We had 50 years. You’ve only had one year,” he said.

“One must always be aware of the risk of the slippery slope. When you leave the door ajar, it will always open more.”

When the debate began in Holland, euthanasia and assisted suicide were only contemplated for those with severe physical illness at end of life, he said. But over time the practices were expanded to include those with psychiatric disorders and those with dementia who had made an advanced directive. Then the “last barrier was crossed to create the medical possibility of ending the life of persons without their request, in the case of handicapped newborns,”  Eijk said.

The cardinal also urged Canadians to stand firm in the defence of conscience rights of health care workers and medical professionals. In the Netherlands, only 15 per cent of physicians refuse to participate in euthanasia and Eijk said none have encountered any direct repercussions for refusing to end a patient’s life. However, a physician looking for work who objects to assisted killing could face “difficulties.”

Bishops can make a difference if they are vocal, he said.

“I think it’s very important to watch,” he said. “Some years ago there was a proposal at the level of the Council of Europe and the idea was to prevent doctors from having moral objections against abortion — they might lose their job.

“Many of us protested against that as bishops of the European Union, by being clear, by expressing our views, by approaching politicians and making them aware of the risks,” he said. Ultimately, the “doctors obtained the possibility to apply for conscientious objection against abortion.”

Palliative care, which Eijk said was only introduced to Holland in the second half of the 1990s, has reduced the number of requests for euthanasia in Holland, he told the bishops. He noted that Canada had many excellent palliative care centres and urged the bishops to “take care not to introduce euthanasia into these centres.”

Eijk, who was trained as a doctor, said public attitudes towards assisted suicide and euthanasia have softened over the years, allowing the practices to become more common.

“Ending suffering by ending life is not eliminating suffering but eliminating the suffering person,” the cardinal stressed. “The termination of life, both as a request of the patient with or without his request, is an intrinsically evil act. It’s never allowed to perform it under any circumstances, even at the request of the patient.”

The CCCB’s Permanent Council has been developing pastoral advice to give to clergy, pastors and lay people regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide, said CCCB President Bishop Douglas Crosby in the annual president’s address. “Assisted suicide and its ramifications is a major pastoral challenge.”

The CCCB’s general secretary has circulated directives on the issue from the Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver and from the bishops of Alberta and Northwest Territories.

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