Archdiocese of St. John's

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Letter to parishioners re Supreme Court ruling on Dr. Assisted Suicide

(Published Feb 25)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

On February 6, 2015, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that competent adults with grievous and irremediable medical conditions have the right to ask a doctor to help them die. This means that the current ban on doctor-assisted suicide will be struck down in 12 months, unless federal and provincial governments amend legislation to respond to the ruling. In 1993, the Supreme Court had ruled that physicians may not assist people to commit suicide. What had changed in the intervening 22 years? Does not life still hold the value that it has always held? Is life any less precious now than it was in 1993?

This issue is on everyone’s tongue and heart and mind, and so it should be, for what is more precious to us than the preservation of life and its dignity, and the protection of our most vulnerable people?

A great deal of the discussion around physician-assisted suicide has focussed on the concepts of compassion and dignity. The way that compassion is being presented by some would lead us to believe that, if someone is seriously ill and will not recover, the only loving, compassionate course of action is to allow a doctor to assist that person to die by administering drugs that will cause death. This is often phrased as “dying with dignity.” But, my friends, compassion is more than alleviating pain and suffering, although this is certainly an element, and dignity is more than the right to decide how one is to die. The word “compassion” comes from a Latin word meaning “to suffer with.” We act with compassion when we feel the pain and suffering of another person, and support them in love by reminding them that they are not alone and that someone does care about them. Compassion has more to do with helping some live in dignity than assisting someone to hasten their own death.

Today, we recognize that effective and compassionate palliative care is a very important element of health care. When we talk about “dying with dignity,” I would encourage each and every one of us to think about effective and meaningful palliative care. Palliative care is about supporting a dying person, relieving pain and giving a dying person the best possible quality of life.

A compassionate person, and a truly compassionate community, will advocate for and ensure that a person who is in the final stages of life receives palliative care. The aim of palliative care is to help people to live well, and so to die with dignity surrounded and supported by a community of faith, informed and assisted by good medical practice.

Dying with dignity is a good that every person would naturally desire; but we recognize that people understand this term differently. Those who support physician-assisted suicide argue that dignity is found in giving people the right to choose life or death. But dignity is not simply about control; it is about care.

It is natural to fear suffering and a loss of dignity. The Catholic Church teaches that people are not obliged to seek treatment or to continue treatment when it is of no benefit, or when the burdens resulting from treatment are clearly disproportionate to the benefits hoped for or obtained.

Today, more than ever, each of us, and we as an entire community of faith, must ask one key question: Are we for life, or for death? We must engage our culture and help them to see that choosing death is never a solution. Death will come to us all, but not by choice. Many of us have had the experience of sitting with dying loved ones, walking with them toward death in the same faith with which they walked through life. This can be a very moving experience, and sometimes an experience that changes us in profound ways. There is something deeply profound in journeying with a terminally ill person as they wait to be called home by our loving Shepherd. We suffer with them and walk with them and often find, to our surprise, that they continue to teach us and minister to us at this moment!

Having a Catholic perspective on life and death means being able to recognize signs of God and God’s abundant love everywhere, in all stages and moments of life, from conception to natural death. Having such a perspective gives us a guide to help us walk through the many complex end-of life-issues we face today. All life is sacred and that it is never permissible to take a person’s life or to assist them in taking their own life.

Therefore, rather than support a right to die, let us support a right to care for each and every person—particularly those who are seriously or terminally ill- in ways that bring meaning, joy, love and life. Only in this way will people die with dignity. Only in this way will we all live with dignity.

Yours in Christ, who is Compassion,

+ Martin

Archbishop of St. John’s

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