Quebec’s “Dying with Dignity” commission is recommending that their provincial government allow a limited form of euthanasia/assisted suicide. Under the recommendations, terminally ill individuals would be able to request the help of a doctor to end their life. The Quebec proposal would apply only in cases where the individual is suffering from an incurable disease, is experiencing intolerable physical or psychological pain, and is palliative. The proposal places euthanasia/assisted suicide within the realm of medical care; in this context, euthanasia/assisted suicide would be considered an appropriate, and compassionate level of “medical aid in dying”.
(The difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide is: in euthanasia, a third party, such as a doctor, takes the action that ends the individual’s life, while in assisted suicide the dying person takes the final action that causes death.)
A recent call in show on CBC Radio debated the issue of euthanasia/assisted suicide. Callers from both sides of the debate shared their experiences. The callers had journeyed with people they loved through debilitating diseases, and the process of dying. It was evident that this experience had profoundly affected each one of them, and influenced their opinions. Those who expressed support for euthanasia/assisted suicide were responding from a place of compassion and love.
While I do not support euthanasia or assisted suicide, I understand why many people favor the Quebec proposal, and hold the opinion that euthanasia/assisted suicide is a compassionate, and humane response to dying. We do not want to watch someone we love suffer, especially when that person is dying from a painful and debilitating disease that robs the body of its ability to function. We have a collective aversion to pain and suffering. We value ‘quality of life’. When we perceive that the physical quality of life is poor, and that a person is suffering, we begin to question the morality of insisting on life when someone expresses a desire to die. Out of compassion for the dying, we want their suffering to end.
The discussion of euthanasia/assisted suicide is often framed in terms of human dignity, and we hear frequent references to ‘dying with dignity’. There is a perception, and a fear that we can lose our dignity in the dying process. As a society, we are developing a vision of dying with dignity that, in my view, relies too heavily on our physical capacities.
We have come to equate human dignity with a properly functioning body. In the euthanasia/assisted suicide debate, when we talk about human dignity, we are most often referring to things like the terminally ill person’s ability to communicate, and to control bodily functions, especially eating and elimination. We may also be considering the effect pain has on the person’s ability to function. In this view, dignity is functional; it depends on the body. A body that is in decline is seen as undignified, and an affront, robbing the individual of ‘quality of life’, and causing unnecessary suffering to the dying and those journeying with them.
Most Canadians would agree that human life is precious. Many of us consider human life to be sacred. In the Christian worldview, which I share, the human person is more than a physical body. We are animated by a spiritual soul, and we share in the dignity of the image of God. Body and spirit, precious and sacred, the human person has an innate and inviolable dignity.
A view of human dignity that relies solely on the vigor of the body takes into account only one dimension of the human person. It overlooks the emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of the person. Human dignity depends on the whole person, and must never be restricted to the physical. We do not lose our dignity when our body breaks down, because of the spiritual dimension to human life.
The fundamental concern of medical care, especially when caring for the terminally ill, must be concern for the whole person. Suffering and death, more than any other experience in life, reveals the spiritual dimension of our existence. A comprehensive debate on euthanasia/assisted suicide must include a rigorous discussion on the concept of human dignity. While death is the disintegration of the body, it may also be a moment of exceptional grace, when we discover fully and completely our imperishable dignity, and meet its author face to face.
Louise McEwan is a religion writer with a background in education and catechesis, and degrees in English and Theology. She writes every other week. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.