Physician-Assisted Dying: the right to die or playing God?

The “burning bush” is a new column featured in response to our readers’ concern that our Church engage the most pressing issues of our culture. Positions expressed are those of the writers and not necessarily of Rupert’s Land News or the Diocese.

Part I: In Opposition to Euthanasia
Physician-assisted suicide is a hot topic — again!
Steven Fletcher, the Winnipeg Conservative MP from Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia, is determined to open this debate even though his Government objects. He is taking two supporting bills to the Senate, and if they pass, they will proceed to the House of Commons. In addition, the province of Quebec has passed a law supporting assisted suicide even though the law conflicts with the Federal Criminal Code.
More significantly, in October, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear an appeal on assisted suicide from the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. In the past, the Court has forced governments to amend laws.
Consequently, Canadians will be debating assisted suicide soon. But, are Anglicans ready?
For guidance, we may look to the Church of England, because a bill on “assisted dying” has passed through the Commons there, and is in the House of Lords. Unfortunately, the Church is conflicted. Earlier this spring, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that the Church opposed the legislation. Nevertheless, on July 12, George Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, published an op-ed in the Daily Mail saying that he disagreed. Dr. Carey is a member of the House of Lords, and he could bring his objections forward in the House without undermining his Church and the presiding ArchbisTree Lined Rural Roadhop.
The reason Lord Carey gave is even more surprising. A friend, Tony Nicklinson, had died two years earlier, and Lord Carey said: “The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering… Here was a dignified man making a simple appeal for mercy, begging that the law allow him to die in peace… I began to reconsider how to interpret Christian theology on the subject. As I did so, I grew less and less certain of my opposition to the right to die.”
Lord Carey curiously used “needless suffering” even though he knows that suffering has been an important theological theme from the time Christ suffered and died on the cross. Suffering is inevitable, but it can be overcome by remembering that Christ died for us. Suppose Lord Carey was at Calvary during the crucifixion; would he have thrust a spear into our Lord’s heart to end His “needless suffering”? If he wouldn’t, then he is disingenuous, and Anglicans shouldn’t pay attention to his Daily Mail “sermon.”
Obviously, the emeritus Archbishop has forgotten three lessons: one learned in Sunday school, “Thou shall not kill;” another learned in primary school, “Thou shalt not undermine your successor;” and the third learned in theological college, “Thou shalt not be disingenuous.” In the impending debate in Canada, it is time for the Anglican Church to set out its theological principles on assisted suicide to guide its members in this important debate.
Rodney A. Clifton attends St. Margaret’s, Winnipeg, and is a retired Fellow of St. John’s College.

Part II: In Proposition of New Legislation
The argument used by many Christians to oppose physician-assisted dying is a simple one. It is the same made by those in opposition to birth control: in all matters of life, from pre-conception to death, we must not play God. Life and death are the sacred task of the Divine. Yet we crossed the line into “playing God” a long time ago. For decades and longer, most Anglicans have found it acceptable to grow a baby in a lab, transplant organs, and keep an accident victim alive artificially.
Before we throw up our arms in shock and horror, we must take a step back and ask ourselves where the line of “playing God” is really crossed. A legal line has been drawn between what is and what is not permissible, but the debate needed now is an ethical one. Saying that physician-assisted dying is simply murder, and the buck stops there, is unduly simplistic and unhelpful, both in the Church and in the public sphere.
Christians proclaim that each human is created in the image of God and that life is very good. However, precisely because we bear God’s image, because we are called children of God, human suffering is particularly tragic. Unlike some faith traditions, Anglicans believe that medical advances are the result of God-given gifts.
newlifeIn countries where euthanasia has been legalized, it has been treated both as a medical gift and as an antidote to our limited ability to play God. Very often, when a person is in a position of immense and incurable suffering, he or she has already had his or her life extended by medical technologies. We have already begun the process of “playing God.” It is our curse, therefore, that we have gained the ability to extend life in such a way that it can sometimes end in increased and prolonged suffering. Subjecting our fellow image-bearers to such needless pain neither affirms their human worth nor glorifies God. It only proves our own pride in our unwillingness to acknowledge our scientific limits.
It is true that Christ himself willingly suffered on the cross- but this was for a particular purpose. Only the most damaging theologies have suggested that suffering should be embraced for its own sake. Yes, pain is a necessary part of life this side of the Kingdom. But Christ suffers with us. He neither rejoices in nor condones our suffering. It is because of that which was accomplished on the cross that we will ultimately be freed of suffering and death itself.
Some who fear the implementation of a new law are concerned about the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. This, however, is why laws are necessary — to ensure safeguards and careful documentation of the practice. University of Manitoba philosopher Arthur Schaffer explains for the Globe and Mail that when physician-assisted dying was legalized in the Netherlands, this was precisely what occurred. That which was previously secret was brought to light, and the vulnerable were given more rights, not fewer.
In short, it is time for the Canadian Church to recognize that this discussion is more nuanced than we are accustomed to treating it. We must come to the table to discuss again what it means to be image-bearers in a changing world.
Though several people in our diocese expressed an alignment with the “pro” position of the conversation, no one was found willing to both write an article and be named publicly. As a result, our second writer has chosen to remain anonymous.
What about you? What will you add to the conversation? (Please remember to be respectful- all comments are subject to review before being published).

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