A woman holds up a sign during a rally against assisted suicide on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2016. CNS photo/Art Babych

Comment: Who are we to judge the ‘quality of life’?

By  Cathy Majtenyi
  • September 8, 2017

The tragic case of a 77-year-old woman, known only as AB, who had been wracked with intolerable pain for more than three decades, was resolved in August through doctor-induced death.

Or was it?

That’s the great unknown with AB and all cases that claim suffering ends at death and that medically induced dying is the logical and humane response to a life that has lost its quality, meaning and purpose.

AB had been struggling with pain since the age of 43, when she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Despite many surgeries and powerful drugs such as fentanyl and morphine, by 2015 her pain had become unbearable and she turned to the health-care system to seek a doctor-assisted death at the beginning of this year.

At first it seemed her request would be granted, but then one of her doctors changed his mind on whether she actually met the federal legislation’s “reasonable foreseeable death” requirement, and the process stopped. She pursued the matter in the courts. On June 19, Superior Court Justice Paul Perell ruled that she did meet the “reasonable foreseeable death” requirement and that the real issue was the doctor’s “abundance of caution and apprehensive misunderstanding,” according to media reports.

Particularly striking about this case is that AB appeared to have been a woman of faith.

“I am at the point where I can say I have done my duty to the world and to the people I love,” The Toronto Star quoted her. “I simply want to quietly move out of life, end my intolerable suffering and go home to God.

“Not only is my suffering intolerable to me but so is my quality of life. I am the kind of person that has always kept busy and always found meaning in helping other people. I am no longer able to do the things that brought me joy and made my life worthwhile.”

AB’s words are terribly sad, totally understandable given her dreadful pain, and very tempting for Christians to buy into. After all, who are we to force her to live such a horrific existence and who are we to judge her and the medical profession for taking steps to willfully end her life under those circumstances?

But who are we to judge what “quality of life” actually means and why would we take it for granted that assisted suicide or euthanasia would bring AB and others “home to God”?

The standards AB used to describe a “good life” — keeping busy, helping others, doing her duty to the world and her loved ones — are laudable but do not necessarily capture God’s full definition of what He would consider to be a high-quality life. Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us of the great gulf between our opinions and God’s birds-eye view: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways….”

In God’s economy, a life of quality includes what a person has become in the process of pursuing their activities and experiences. And that’s where suffering comes in. Suffering pushes us past a “quality, worthwhile life” based on our standards to put us in a place where He can really work in us, and those around us, to prepare us for eternity with Him.

Suffering also gives those around us an opportunity to develop compassion through caregiving, strengthening their relationship with God and others: “I was sick and you looked after me…. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Matthew wrote.

We do know that suffering has a purpose and that there is strength in weakness. Still, most often we don’t know the exact meaning, role and end result of specific instances of suffering. We are called to have faith in what Jeremiah tells us is God’s special plan, one that helps us prosper and gives us a “hope and a future.”

Intense hardship, although agonizing to undergo or witness, is part of that plan, the glory of which may not be seen on this side of eternity. We know that intense suffering eventually comes to an end — in God’s time.

Only God knows where AB is now and whether she is at peace or still suffering, because the purposes of her suffering had not been accomplished on Earth. We need to resist the powerful but misguided impulse to short-circuit God’s plan by our “compassionate” intervention, thinking that we — not God — can decide when “enough is enough.”

(Majtenyi is a researcher and communications specialist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.)

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