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Living and Dying with Dignity (March 1, 2019)

In my column last week, I wrote about Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) as a faithful way of thinking about the end of life. While some churches are opposed to this practice, there are many of us which are not.

I wrote that one argument which was used to oppose this practice was to say that it is God’s prerogative as to how long we live, and that for us to choose medical assistance in dying usurped that which only belonged to God. I suggested that if this argument was valid, that if it were true that the number of days allotted to us can only be determined by God, then the same argument suggests that we can also not employ medical means to prolong life.

I received a lot of response to that column, virtually all of it positive. People were grateful that I had raised this sensitive subject, and that I helped them think about it in a way that they hadn’t thought about it before.

Several people also raised questions about other issues raised by MAiD. Let me answer two of those questions in this column. The first is our changing understandings of suicide, and the second has to do with the role of suffering in life.

For a long time, MAiD was referred to as “Assisted Suicide”. The language has changed since then to reflect the view that end of life decisions like this are quite a different matter than considering dying by suicide. People request MAiD as a deliberate choice when it has become possible to sustain life only by intensive and massive medical intervention. Such intervention is often dehumanizing, and a person chooses to die with dignity rather than to wait for an inevitable end.

While there are still some churches which simply condemn suicide as a practice “contrary to God’s will”, many churches now understand that we must respond with compassion and care. The church in which I serve is one whose approach to suicide has changed in healthy and helpful ways.

The Anglican Church of Canada developed a document entitled “In Sure and Certain Hope”, which deals with the subject of MAiD. “The church no longer sees as acceptable interpretations of the motives for suicide cast in terms of lack of courage, unfaithfulness, or in terms of the rejection of God’s will.” Society’s growing awareness and understanding of mental health issues have led to this welcome change. We are becoming increasingly aware that people struggle with suicidal ideation in the course of dealing with mental health issues.

We are becoming more open to discussing mental health, without the sense of strong stigma which characterized such matters in the past. That stigma has not yet been eradicated, but we are generally more aware of the strong and damaging effects of struggling with mental health.

The church also understands and strives to deal compassionately and caringly for those who struggle with suicidal ideation. We try to have a more “nuanced understanding of the situation, health, and motivating factors that might lead an individual to believe that the only viable option in front of them is to take their own lives.”

That leads me directly to the second issue of the role of suffering in life.

For far too long, the church has believed that suffering is a necessary and important part of the Christian life. Many Christians in the past (and still some in the present) point to the teaching of Jesus that we must take up our cross, as well as St. Paul’s teachings about suffering, as a way of legitimizing the necessity of suffering. They have counselled people to remain in abusive relationships, to accept the suffering that comes to us in life, since the Bible clearly teaches that it is a necessary part of faithful living.

Many Christians today disagree. We make a clear distinction between suffering for the sake of the gospel, and suffering as a part of the human condition. When Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow, it does not mean that we are to accept every act of suffering that is meted out to us. Indeed, Jesus’ words clearly point out that we need to make a choice. The reality is that the general suffering of life, or suffering caused by the ill treatment of others, takes away our choice.

Indeed, many people, whether we are Christian or not, choose to suffer for the sake of another. Parents let go of some of their rights and wants in order to care for children. Children will often make the choice to care for aging parents who are no longer able to care for themselves. Such acts of compassion and self–giving love are exactly what the gospel points to as we choose to deny ourselves for the sake of another’s welfare.

But there are forms of suffering in life which we do not choose—debilitating illness; mental health issues; cancer; an accident which leaves us incapacitated; an abusive relationship. In each case, we must decide anew on a course of faithful living.

I will not go so far as to say that all such suffering has no meaning. That is not my call to make. It’s way above my pay grade!

But I will say that in such instances, it is the individual, in consultation with loved ones and care providers, who has the primary right and responsibility to decide on a course of action which is best and most faithful.

MAiD is such a possible faithful, loving, and wise course of action. If the suffering becomes intolerable, and life can only be sustained by massive medical intervention, then the individual concerned has the right to make an appropriate choice for him– or herself. Such a choice is never made in isolation. Rather it is made in community.

We never give up our right to live with dignity. No one can take that from us. I will go further than that and say that we also have the right to die with dignity. MAiD gives us that option in a way that hasn’t been possible before. I am grateful for that possibility.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt