Assisted suicide case raises alarm bells

WINNIPEG, MB—The right-to-die debate in Canada was sparked once again in late April, when Susan Griffiths, a 72-year-old Winnipeg woman, died after travelling to Switzerland to take advantage of the country's assisted-suicide law.

Assisted suicide is against the law in Canada, but legal in Switzerland. Griffiths had multiple system atrophy, a rare disease that was robbing her of the ability to perform the most basic bodily functions, a condition for which there is no cure.

Prior to taking the drink that ended her life, Griffiths told the CBC that she hoped people will lobby their members of Parliament to change Canada's stance on assisted suicide and allow people to decide how they want to end their lives.

"It's very important that people feel in the future that they have control of their life and their death," Griffiths told the CBC. "And I have not felt that control in the last year or so, and it's been very distressing for me."

Hendrik van der Breggen, associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College in Otterburne, Manitoba, says he is troubled about Griffiths' story, especially her call to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Van der Breggen is troubled that the biblical teachings that make it clear that suicide isn't morally right are not taken seriously. He also takes issue with the common misconception that the only two options for the terminally ill are physician-assisted suicide, or a lonely, agonizing death.

Finally, he finds it problematic that Griffiths' justification for the legalization of assisted suicide is couched primarily in terms of the individual's choice in response to suffering, with no regard for broader concerns.

"Yes, freedom is important," van der Breggen says. "But, surely the freedom to exercise one's choice is not absolute. I do not have the freedom to shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre if there is no fire and if the shout will cause a stampede to the exits resulting in injury to others. In other words, we do not live in a social vacuum: our choices affect others. How our choices affect others should be explored."

Larry Worthen is the executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS), an organization that promotes the integration of faith in Jesus Christ with professional excellence in patient care in the fields of medicine and dentistry. He says the CMDS opposes any steps to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Canada.

"We believe that life comes from God, that God has created all life, that God sent His son Jesus into the world to redeem all life, and that He sends his spirit into the hearts of all believers to provide us with the support to work through any difficulties that may arise in life," Worthen says.

At the same time, the CMDS and van der Breggen agree that withdrawing or withholding extraordinary, burdensome, or medically useless treatment from a terminally ill patient, and thereby allowing the patient to die of the illness running its course, is an ethical part of medical care.

Both Worthen and van der Breggen point out that palliative care is an appropriate response for people struggling with terminal illness.

"Members of our organization … tell us that in virtually all cases, pain can be managed at the end of life so that the patient is comfortable," Worthen says. "Going beyond that, for Christians, there is comfort in knowing that Christ Himself suffered … but it did not affect His dignity as the son of God. He showed us through His love and suffering that every human life has dignity and is worthy of respect, support and care."

Van der Breggen believes that on the issue of assisted suicide is a battle of ideas that requires the attention of thoughtful Christians. Failure of Christian thinkers to engage in this battle of ideas is to betray their fellow humans by failing to speak up in defence of the weak, the elderly, the terminally ill, the disabled, the depressed and others.

Worthen worries that if assisted suicide was to become legal in Canada, it would become more socially acceptable, and more people would begin to call on Canada's medical system to provide the service.

"[The CMDS is] concerned that if this is legalized for a smaller group of people, that eventually over time, the people who would qualify for physician-assisted suicide would expand and it would further erode the protection of vulnerable people at end of life."

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Aaron Epp is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer, Musical Routes columnist, and former Senior Correspondent for ChristianWeek.