By Brent Gerchicoff
The Quebec government is actively debating whether or not one has the right to decide to continue life under difficult circumstances. The National Assembly could pass Bill 52, known as "The Act Respecting the End of Life Care" as early as mid-February. It would legalize "medically assisted dying" following a model from the Netherlands and Belgium that has allowed euthanasia dating back to 2002.
Quebec’s proposed law requires that a patient suffering from a terminal illness "must be in unbearable pain and need the approval of two doctors." With these restrictions in mind, we must turn to two places before forming an informed opinion on this divisive, controversial, and complex issue: the Roman Catholic Church's position on the sanctity of life, and the role of the state in enacting legislation based on morality and ethics.
For a Roman Catholic, euthanasia presents a very troubling moral issue. It would seem that doctor-assisted suicide is without precedent in our society, leaving aside controversial practices that have operated outside the boundaries of the mainstream medical community such as the infamous Dr. Kevorkian, who became synonymous with this debate during the 1990s. Certainly, the State has not previously condoned this practice and definitely not enshrined the right to no longer continue life. However, this view would be partially incorrect. It is legal to sign a "do not resuscitate" order (DNR) all over Canada, including Quebec. Terminally ill patients often declare that "no heroic measures be taken to prolong their life" as their quality of living dramatically declines and unbearable pain becomes a way of life. In this order, doctors are legally prevented from using CPR or electric shock to restart the heart during cardiac arrest, and no invasive measures may be taken when the patient is dying.
This is clearly not the same thing as doctor-assisted suicide, but it may be placed along a continuum in the debate over whether or not a terminally-ill patient has the right to decide to continue a painful life that is no longer bearable when death is virtually imminent, which is the target of Quebec’s right-to-die legislation. In the DNR order, the patient is allowing death when it might otherwise be delayed. This is, of course, different from actively seeking out death under terminal circumstances, but this might not be as dramatically different as one might imagine at first glance. While DNR and euthanasia are two very different things, there is precedent to continue the conversation regarding a patient's right to no longer continue life when that life is no longer bearable.
As we have established a precedent in the debate, the Church's position on life is unimpeachable. Catholics are protective of the life God has created for us. Only He may legitimately take it away. In Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life) written by the Blessed John Paul II, he writes:
In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God's absolute sovereignty over life and death, as proclaimed in the prayer of the ancient sage of Israel: "You have power over life and death; you lead men down to the gates of Hades and back again" (Wis 16:13; cf. Tob 13:2).
This teaching is very clear: only God may be allowed to decide both when life begins and when life has run its course. This is supported with Scriptural evidence from the Book of Wisdom and in further places in the Gospels. In fact, Pope John Paul II, with support from the writings of Saint Augustine, directly engaged in the assisted suicide debate in a very clear way:
To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called "assisted suicide" means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested. In a remarkably relevant passage Saint Augustine writes that "it is never licit to kill another: even if he should wish it, indeed if he request it because, hanging between life and death, he begs for help in freeing the soul struggling against the bonds of the body and longing to be released; nor is it licit even when a sick person is no longer able to live."
Both St. Augustine and (soon-to-be Saint) John Paul II have declared it illicit and unjust to help someone to die, even if requested, and even for the seemingly noble purpose of not wanting to be a burden on loved ones who are charged to take care of a terminally ill patient. The Church and theological writings on the subject have been made as clear as possible: Doctor-assisted suicide is antithetical to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
We have covered the Church's unimpeachable position on the sanctity of life and the unambiguous condemnation of both suicide and assisted suicide of terminally ill patients as being contrary to justice and inherently illicit. Now we must consider the role of the state in enacting legislation based on moral teachings. In this case, I have demonstrated that this is deeply informed by theological perspectives. For this argument, I will draw from the Federalist Papers and the political writings of John Locke.
The separation of the teachings of the Church from the legislation of civil society is the cornerstone of modern government. This is not to deny the relevance of the moral teachings of the Church. It is to assert that the government is not empowered to act as a moral compass for citizens, nor is the government empowered to base legislation upon what the individual considers moral or immoral. At the core of this philosophy is the conviction that we must, as individual private citizens, decide what is right for ourselves.
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, declares that the relationship between man and God is a personal one, which the government should not be tolerated to tread upon or enforce:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
This passage, at once, argues that religious toleration is central to a free and open society, but it goes further in that moral covenants are inherently very personal. The government simply cannot engage in policies or laws that are morally imbued. The writings of the Federalist Papers enshrine the concept that the government does not have the legitimate authority to enact laws based on precepts of moral judgment, but on protecting the rights of the citizens of the polity. This is, of course, in the tradition of political theorist John Locke.
John Locke's vision of legitimate government is that it is based upon precepts that protect the rights of its citizens, not to enforce a moral code that is adhered to by either elite decision makers, nor from the general population in a populist tradition. In seminal works by Locke, the basis of the liberal democratic system of government (not in the sense of liberal versus conservative, but in the tradition of liberal versus illiberal), he cogently argues that laws are enacted for the safety and security of society. That is to say, Locke argues that governments are not (and, normatively, should not be) empowered to make laws that are made to perpetuate a code of truth and opinion, read: laws are not made to form the moral guidance of society:
Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins by the consent of men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate. The reason is because they are not prejudicial to other men’s rights, nor do they break the public peace of societies...the business of laws are not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man's goods and person.
What this passage is essentially saying is that even though some actions are deemed by some to be immoral, the state does not have the right to make them illegal, nor is the government empowered to make these actions punishable. This is because laws are made to protect individual liberty and property.
The argument cannot be made that doctor-assisted suicide breaks the peace of society, nor does it threaten the security of the commonwealth. What contesting a law of this sort would do is for the government to "provide for the truth of opinions" on what is right and moral. This, at its very core, is an individual decision that private citizens must grapple with themselves.
As a Roman Catholic, I am troubled by the concept of doctor-assisted suicide. I agree that it is problematic to the teachings of the Vatican and it is a moral decision that I find at once uncomfortable and difficult to reconcile with my interpretation of the sanctity of life. This is a deeply personal belief that I hold. I would be even more troubled, however, if the government felt empowered to act as my moral compass.
The Roman Catholic Church is best suited to the role of engaging in discussion on both moral and ethical issues, but that conversation is predicated on the notion that this role is built upon persuasion and not enforcement. The same cannot be said for government in civil society, whose role is predicated on the enforcement of laws and governance. Furthermore, empowering the government to enact laws that are morally imbued would leave society open to, at once, enforcing moral opinion and enshrining legislation based on laws that we would find antithetical to the teachings of our Faith.
Last Night at the Gayete
The Centaur Theatre's - season is drawing to a close with its final production of Last Night at the Gayety, a musical comedy by Bowser & Blue which runs until May 22nd.