Is a medically assisted death a good death?
Credit: ISTOCK (IVAN-BALVA)
Opinion: For Christians, a human being is not merely the subject of mental and physical health care administrators.
According to Canada’s Department of Justice website, Canadians are eligible for Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) if they meet certain criteria. Here they are.
Applicants must be 18 or older and have access to government funded health services. They need to be able to make their own health care decisions and make a voluntary request for MAID. They must be able to give consent once they have become informed of options to relieve their suffering, including palliative care. There has to be an incurable disease or disability, the suffering has to be “unbearable,” and natural death has to be reasonably foreseeable. There are other details stated on the website, but I think this gives a fair picture.
Changes to eligibility requirements, though, are being considered by the Senate and House of Commons. There is discussion on the ability of people suffering from severe mental disabilities to access MAID. The Department of Justice website states that people suffering solely from mental conditions would be banned from access. However, CTV (website, Feb. 14) reports that consideration is being given to putting a time limit of 18 months on the ban.
In addition, CTV reports that proposed changes would allow MAID for people who are suffering “intolerably” even if they are not nearing the natural end of their lives. And they would allow people fearing dementia or “comparable” disorders to access MAID.
These are very difficult issues. On the one hand, anyone who has seen a loved one suffer a great deal at the end of their life can sympathize with the desire to avoid needless indignity and pain. For example, we worry about the mental anguish that people with dementia experience.
On the other hand, people do not want to create a system that makes it easy to prematurely end one’s life. I haven’t done a poll, but I would guess that we want our loved ones and friends to not give up on living too quickly. We want people to maximize the available options for pain relief and long-term or palliative care.
Connected with this, we do not want people to hurry us off the stage either. It sometimes happens that family and friends withdraw support for a very ill individual because it is hard on them, the caregivers. Subtle, but keenly felt loss of love can push the dying to embrace an earlier death.
You may be aware of the Christian reluctance to support MAID-type initiatives. The Catholic Church has spoken out most strongly against all forms of killing of the elderly and ill, whether the methods are titled assisted suicide, euthanasia, mercy killing, or MAID. (See, for example, Bioethics Matter: Medical Assistance in Dying: A Review of the Legislation, Bridget Campion, PhD, Faculty of Theology, University of St Michael’s College, Toronto, Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute website, Feb. 14, 2020.)
Partly what lies behind this reluctance is the insistence that all forms of palliative care, pain relief, and medical interventions be made available to the suffering person. Partly what lies behind this is the experience that facing suffering creates tangible experiences of love, compassion, courage, endurance, and solidarity with family and friends. Partly what lies behind this is the conviction that when we are on a difficult road, God becomes present to us in new ways, if we trust him.
And partly what lies behind this is the belief that human life has intrinsic value. Each person is created in the “image” of God. There is something of God in everyone. Therefore, a human being is not merely the object of criminal codes and health care policy. A human being is not merely the subject of mental and physical health care administrators.
Now for the story I promised. Some years ago, I visited an aged woman in London’s Victoria Hospital. She had had a stroke (I think it was). It was doubtful she would recover. Over the course of some days I met with her son and his wife. They were related to me through a marriage connection. Like me, they were Christians.
As time went on, there was no change in the mother’s situation. She remained on life support, kept alive by a respirator.
port, kept alive by a respirator. I spoke with her son and his wife. There was consultation with the doctor and less formal chats with nurses. We prayed a few times at the bedside — always being sure to include the dying woman and to speak directly to her in case her hearing was still functioning. As the days progressed, a decision was made.
I arrived once again. We read a prayer from the Bible (one of the Psalms). We read other Bible passages expressing confidence in the enduring love of God, in his forgiveness, and in the resurrection of the dead.
The respirator was turned off. There were a few short breaths. Then a longer one. And a pause in the breathing. The pause did not end. She was gone. A final prayer. Some small talk about our drives home, and arrangements for the days ahead.
I think it was a good death. And maybe this short account of it will be a help when your mother, father, other family member, or friend is breathing their last.