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Bernatsky: We can do much better in journeying with those who are dying

29 October 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

The federal government’s proposed Bill C-7 signifies a critical and unfortunate juncture by expanding access to Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) in Canada.

Medical Assistance in Dying was legalized in Canada in June 2016. This allowed physicians and nurse practitioners to administer a substance causing death — directly or by prescribing a drug for the patient to self-administer — when a patient’s natural death is reasonably foreseeable.

Now in response to a Quebec court ruling that it is unconstitutional that a person can access MAiD only if their natural death is reasonably foreseeable, the federal government has reintroduced Bill C-7, which would allow those whose death is not foreseeable to choose to end their lives through MAiD.

While safeguards are proposed, and individuals suffering solely from mental illness are excluded at present, Bill C-7 also means that health care practitioners could be forced to assist with this process, even if it contravenes an informed conscience.

The recent Ecumenical-Inter-Religious Statement by Religious Leaders in Canada opposing Bill C-7 articulates my own sentiments on Medical Assistance in Dying and the proposed legislation. I am disheartened to see the expansion of eligibility to those who are not imminently dying. Developments in palliative care, the resources of spiritual care practitioners, and the compassionate outreach of family and friends seen on every palliative care unit and faith-based long term care facility demonstrate that “We can do much better!”

The Catholic Church is clear about its position on medically assisted death or euthanasia: intentionally taking the life of another person is prohibited since it contravenes our belief in the sanctity of life (See Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Declaration on Euthanasia.“)

On the other hand, medical treatment is not obligatory.  If treatment no longer holds the chance of cure, or if the effects are deemed burdensome by the patient, medical treatment can be withdrawn or withheld. However, euthanasia or direct killing is never permitted.

No one wants to see another person suffer; the specialized discipline of Palliative Care is directed at alleviating pain and distressing symptoms. Much of my experience as a Registered Nurse has been with caring for people at the end of life. While it can be a very painful time, the exchange of gifts of love, forgiveness and other blessings that occur in the final days of life can be so very meaningful.

MAiD challenges us as Christians to recommit ourselves individually and collectively to affirm that life is sacred, a gift from God. Just as Jesus accompanied the disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35), we must reach out and walk alongside those suffering and lead them with love and compassion to choose life rather than death. While something may be legal, it does not make it morally acceptable.

While the proposed legislation does not make eligible minors or people suffering solely from mental illness, there is no promise that this will not be considered in future. The proposed legislation does nothing to improve the safeguards for vulnerable people such as the elderly and those with disabilities. It also fails to protect health workers’ conscience rights, which has been a critical issue for Catholics and other faithful health care professionals. Conscience rights are Charter rights, and the federal government has a responsibility to protect the Charter rights of all Canadians.

I urge all Canadians to express their support for excellent palliative care to alleviate pain and other distressing symptoms at the end of life, and support the loved ones of those nearing the end of life. We must encourage our governments to expand palliative care across this nation and increase Canadians’ safeguards, rather than expand access to MAiD.

Rather than increasing access to Medical Assistance in Dying, we must focus our attention on the sick and the vulnerable who need assistance in living. In that regard, I agree, “We can do much better!”

More: Proposed changes to assisted suicide law represent ‘massive failure of compassion’

-Sr. Zoe Bernatsky SSMI teaches Moral and Pastoral Theology at Newman Theological College. She holds a Doctorate in Moral Theology from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara, a Masters of Health Administration from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Saskatchewan.