Bruce J. Clemenger

Bruce J. Clemenger

Reprinted with permission from the Sep/Oct issue of Faith Today.

Well, that didn’t take long. Weeks after the government passed its law on assisted suicide, a legal challenge has already been launched to try to widen its availability.

Currently, hastened death is only legal for people whose deaths are “reasonably foreseeable,” which basically means terminally ill.

At the law’s draft stage, a majority of Senators already tried to have this restriction taken out. They ultimately failed.

Had this clause been removed, assisted suicide and euthanasia would be available to anyone with chronic suffering they consider unbearable, including suffering caused primarily by mental illness or conditions like diabetes – or even by disabilities.

During the government debates I attended a meeting of disability groups in Ottawa, including the minister of sport and persons with disabilities. Speaker after speaker pleaded with the government to reject the Senate’s proposed amendment.

Why? Because opening euthanasia to people with disabilities would put them in grave danger. Once people qualify for assisted suicide, they can feel pressured to end their lives. Most of us are protected from such pressures because hastening death remains illegal for us. Why should disability create an exemption?

Some argue, wrongly, that the terminal illness requirement is more than what the Supreme Court said was necessary. In fact, the court said its ruling was restricted to the circumstances before it, which concerned a woman whose condition was deteriorating to the point she would not be able to take her own life.

However, the language the court used is being interpreted by euthanasia advocates as if it were more expansive, as if it did not require the condition be terminal.

The EFC believes human life is sacred. We are fundamentally opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia. We engaged in the debate over legislation because we knew the government was moving to allow the practices.

We made written submissions and appeared before committees to press for legislation that was as restrictive as possible to protect vulnerable people and uphold the sanctity of human life as much as possible. To prevent further harm, we are now in a position of having to defend a law we had opposed.

The battle isn’t over. As Canadians become accustomed to euthanasia, the availability of palliative care will become less of a priority than it was during the height of the debate.

Palliative care must remain at the forefront, and the EFC is working with other faith groups to press the government to honour its commitment to improving availability.

The EFC has also been pressing all along for clear protection to ensure medical professionals and institutions who care for people near death will not be compelled to participate in killing. Although the new law affirms freedom of conscience, specific protections now need to be won province by province.

Ontario is the toughest so far. Other provinces are developing ways to process requests that do not violate the deeply held beliefs of medical professionals. But Ontario requires objecting doctors to, at minimum, provide an effective referral, which is like prescribing the death of their patient. This requirement is being challenged legally.

In Ontario it also seems extended-care facilities – including faith-based ones – will be expected to allow hastened death on their premises.

In addition to the legal and political battles, we must become even more involved in caring for people who are vulnerable or at the end of life. We cannot be complacent.

We who believe every life is invaluable need to express this by volunteering at palliative care wards and hospices, supporting neighbours caring for loved ones at home, and building bridges between our congregations and local seniors’ homes and care facilities.

We can serve God by engaging with both public policy and practical caring. Clearly, we have work to do.

Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

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