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God Numbers Our Days (February 22, 2019)

In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that parts of the Criminal Code would need to change to satisfy the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The parts that prohibited medical assistance in dying would no longer be valid.

On June 17, 2016, Canada’s Parliament passed federal legislation that allows eligible Canadian adults to request Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD).

It will come as no surprise that many churches are opposed to MAiD. The Roman Catholic Church has consistently opposed MAiD. Bishops in Alberta and the Northwest Territories have gone so far as to issue guidelines that “priests should consider refusing to conduct funerals for people who have chosen a physician–assisted death.”

Roman Catholic leaders are not alone in taking this stance. Other religious leaders say that supporting terminally ill patients means accompanying them through their pain and fear, not allowing them to actively choose death. They also believe that even suffering holds valuable lessons for patients and survivors.

But it needs to be said that not all churches are opposed to MAiD. Many churches agree that individuals have a right to determine for themselves how they will die. Those churches agree that physician–assisted dying is not to be chosen lightly, but it is a legitimate option for people of faith.

My own church is a case in point. The Anglican Church of Canada acknowledges that although MAiD may be a difficult choice, it is nonetheless a faithful choice to make. The Anglican Church issued a comprehensive document called “In Sure and Certain Hope” which lays out some of the issues involved in the matter of MAiD. It notes that “public opinion has moved clearly and decisively in favour of physician assisted dying”, and that we need to consider all the issues carefully as we support those who have chosen to seek medical assistance in their own death.

One of the common arguments made by Christian leaders against MAiD is that “God numbers our days.” The argument runs like this. From birth to death, our lives are a gift from God. It is God who determines the length of our life. Therefore, when we choose to seek medical assistance in dying, we are going against God’s sovereignty, and taking into our hands a decision which properly belongs to God alone.

The argument is based on various scriptures such as Psalm 139:16 which says, “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

Ray Noah, Senior Pastor of the Portland Christian Center, writes about this Psalm, “I find great comfort and security in knowing that God has my life so ordered that I will neither die a day sooner nor live a day longer than what has already been recorded in his book. You see, life and death are far above my pay grade, so I will happily let Father God take care of that department, thank you very much.”

The whole argument is that only God can choose when we live and when we die. When we take that decision into our own hands, then we overstep our bounds.

On the face of it, the argument seems to be consistent with an understanding of the Bible as the divinely given word in the Bible.

But is it really? Let’s examine it a little more closely.

If it is really true that God numbers our days, then we may not take steps to end our lives prematurely. We are to leave the time of our death completely in the hands of God.

By the same token, we may also not take steps to lengthen our life. In my own case, what that would mean is that as a diabetic, I could not take insulin or any other medication which would help me because my body is no longer able to produce its own insulin. By this argument, I have made a decision to lengthen my days by injecting myself several times each day with the first medically useful product of genetic engineering, and thereby I have taken a decision for myself which ought to be left in the hands of God.

The logic of this argument would also lead to the conviction that we ought not sanction heart surgery or treatment for cancer or any other medical intervention which has the effect of allowing us to live healthy and productive lives for a longer span of time.

The point I am making is that we cannot arbitrarily apply an argument to only one part of life. We cannot say, when faced with the prospect and desirability of MaiD, that we are overstepping our bounds when on the other hand we take steps in many different situations to lengthen the number of our days.

I am an ardent advocate of MaiD, both philosophically and from personal experience. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that we should take this option lightly. It needs careful consideration and consultation with family members, doctors and others who are important in your life.

But when there are no other options left, MAiD is an important part of living our life with dignity.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt