Dr. David Amies: Bishops’ assisted dying edict short on love, understanding

In this blog post, Dr. David Amies responds to the assisted dying guidelines put forward by Canadian Catholic bishops and other Catholic associations in the country. Dr. Amies argues that the guidelines not only show how "out of touch" the church can be, but that its refusal to implement the fully legal and fully constitutional practice of assisted dying displays a stunning lack of love and mercy.

The Roman Catholic bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories (NWT) recently declared that people who have chosen medical aid in dying as an escape from an intolerable health situation may be refused the benefit of clergy at their funerals.

The one hospital in Comox, British Columbia, which happens to be run by a Catholic organization, has ruled that discussions about medical aid in dying must not take place on its premises. The Catholic Health Association of Ontario, an organization that controls several hospitals, has declared that patients who request assisted deaths must be transferred off-site for consultations.

The decision by the bishops of Alberta and the NWT is likely to be very distressing for certain terminally ill patients and their families. It may well be that such people have been devoted and obedient followers of the church throughout their lives, and now when they would hope to receive every possible means of support during their last few weeks of life, they find that their church is threatening to impose sanctions upon them.

Catholic hospitals across the country that are refusing to allow patients to even discuss a legal process while in their wards and insisting that they be transferred off-site are placing an enormous burden upon the most vulnerable. Canada's new law concerning medical aid in dying requires a 10-day waiting period before medical practitioners can bring lives to an end. The decision to end one's life on a particular day cannot be an easy one. Even to qualify, it is necessary to be suffering grievously without any hope of reasonable relief. Imagine then, the additional stress and burden that would be caused by being moved off site in order to negotiate the process.

'Out of touch'

The Catholic Church regards “physician-assisted suicide” as a grave sin which goes against Catholic doctrine. It is, of course, entirely within its rights to decide about matters of good and evil, but surely doctrine should be tempered with mercy. If Christianity can be characterized by one word, then surely that word is “love.” Jesus of Nazareth enjoined his followers to love one another (John 13: 34-35). He also instructed them to love their neighbours (Mark 12:31). The New Testament makes more than one reference to what is known as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would want them to do to you.” Is it fair to ask whether one of those who determines Catholic hospital policy, or even one of the Alberta bishops, would wish to be treated in this same unsympathetic manner were they to find themselves so gravely ill that death appeared to be an attractive option?

I fear that the Catholic Church becomes more and more out of touch with its flock. It disregards the fact that a hefty majority of Canadians are in favour of medically assisted dying. It overlooks the fact that it is now the law of the land. Enda Kenney, the Irish Prime Minister, when commenting about the Church's reaction to a report into child sexual abuse, said, “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart’… the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyze it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.” Uncomfortable listening for those in authority!

Stubborn adherence to doctrine makes no friends. One might hope that those in charge of an important church might consider that circumstances alter cases and that to err on the side of compassion for the unfortunate is perhaps a truer sign of concern than a mere sticking to the rules and regulations. 

Dr. David Amies is a retired doctor in Lethbridge, Alta., and a member of DWD Canada's Physicians Advisory Council.

(Header credit: Aloysius Patacsil)

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