Messages from the Bishop

"Supreme Surrealism"

Written by Bishop Henry on Wednesday, 01 April 2015

The "Supreme" Court has ruled the nation's law against assisted suicide is unconstitutional, and gave Parliament one year to craft a legislative response. The "Supreme" Court decision regarding assisted suicide is extremely disappointing and more than a bit surreal. It has the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream, unreal and fanciful.

I, obviously mistakenly, thought that there would have to be some incontrovertible or almost divine-like intervention to reverse its earlier position in Rodriguez v. B.C. (Rodriguez). It is quite a stretch to argue that this was necessary because of a different "matrix of legislative and social facts." The differing matrix needs to be proven, not assumed. It is far from self-evident as it ignores the clear, unchanged Parliamentary consensus opposing assisted suicide.

Between 1991 and 2012, nine private member's bills were introduced in the House of Commons seeking to amend the Criminal Code to decriminalize assisted suicide or euthanasia. Six were voted on and all failed to pass. When considering the "matrix" of legislative facts, the Court gave weight to legislative developments in Belgium, Switzerland, Oregon, Washington and the Netherlands, but ignored the legislative record of Canada's Parliament.

While insisting that the "matrix of legislative and social facts" has changed since the last ruling on this issue, the "Supreme" Court acknowledged that "physician assisted dying remains a criminal offence in most Western countries." Nevertheless, the Court chose to align itself with the minority of jurisdictions which allow physician assisted suicide.

If you have read this far, you will have noted that I have put quotation marks around the word "Supreme." Nothing has changed morally despite the recent decision of the Court! There is no right to physician assisted suicide.

Assisted suicide or helping some one to take his or her own life, usually a sick person who wishes to commit suicide but is physically unable to do so is never morally permissible, for it violates the prohibitions of taking innocent human life [cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2281-2282].

The noble arts of medicine must be employed in the service of life. The medical community has traditionally refused to participate in any act of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The Oath of Hippocrates, dating from the fourth century, BC, states "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asks for it, nor will I make a suggestion to that effect." Physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as a healer.

There can be no question that advanced technologies have enabled physicians to preserve human life beyond what is morally obligatory, and the abuse of technology has led some to embrace physician assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The prospect of a prolonged and painful illness, under the dominance of technological devices that only extend the dying process, rightly alarms all who wish to die a peaceful and natural death.

Catholic moral teaching recognizes that there is a definite limit to the medical treatment that a patient is morally bound to accept. The governing principle is that "no moral obligation to have recourse to extraordinary measures exists; and that, incidentally, a doctor must follow the wishes of the sick person who refuses such measures" [Cor Unum, Questions of Ethics regarding the Fatally Ill and the Dying, 1981].

As a rule, extraordinary means of preserving life may be abandoned at any time (whether one is dying or not), and the use of comfort measures that unintentionally hasten death may sometimes be permissible.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1980 issued a Declaration on Euthanasia that presented four points that can serve as a thumbnail sketch of the proper grounds for refusal of burdensome treatment:

  • If other alternatives are not available, one may make use of the most advanced, even if still experimental, medical procedures.
  • One may also refuse or cease to use extraordinary means if the benefits they provide fall short of expectations.
  • One may make do with the ordinary means available and refuse all extraordinary means. "Such a refusal is not the equivalent of suicide; on the contrary, it should be considered as an acceptance of the human condition, or a wish to avoid the application of a medical procedure disproportionate to the results that can be expected, or a desire not to impose excessive expense on the family or the community."
  • When death is imminent one may "refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life."


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