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First Belgium, now Canada: Catholics must speak up for the sacredness of life

An anti-euthanasia demonstrator in London

It started in Belgium and now it has spread to Canada, which is now considering allowing euthanasia of children. Yes, that is correct: persons who are not allowed to vote may be allowed to request physician-assisted suicide in Canada.

The report into the proposed expansion of Canadian legislation makes sad reading, but at the same time the robust teaching of the Canadian bishops is encouraging. These things are not said often enough.

First of all, suicide is a sin. Yes, we know that most people who kill themselves do so, we presume, while the balance of their mind is disturbed. People who jump from high buildings are usually anguished and not making a calm and deliberate choice. However, those who request physician-assisted suicide are not acting under the intense pressure of a single desperate moment. They are making a deliberate and to a large extent informed choice. And what are they choosing? An act, self-destruction, which can in no way be part of a vision of human flourishing. The nature of the act is of itself sinful, and indeed, gravely sinful, in that it cannot of its nature be undone or ameliorated in any way.

To destroy yourself deliberately cannot in any way be right. The usual argument that is advanced to try and justify this is that the act of choice makes it right. But no act of choice can ever change the nature of the act, which, in itself, is so very wrong. Choice is only valuable when it is choice to do good. Free choice of wrong things is catastrophic: self-harm, even when freely chosen, remains self-harm.

Every sin tells us something about the character of the acting person; and every sin that is encouraged by society tells us something about the character of that society. People who want to kill themselves are clearly not happy: the answer must be to assuage their existential unhappiness, either by taking away their pain, or, sometimes, taking away the feeling that they are unwanted and unloved. A society which legislates for euthanasia is one where the unwanted and the unloved are to be disposed of; in other words, a society where some people are surplus to requirements, and there is no equality of dignity and worth. The Canadian euthanasia law is telling some Canadians that their lives are not worth living, and all Canadians that they may one day die in this way, unloved and unwanted.

The second thing the Canadian bishops rightly point out is that a person who requests a lethal injection, according to Archbishop Prendergast of Ottawa, “lacks the proper disposition for the anointing of the sick. Asking your priest to be present (at) something that is in direct contradiction to our Catholic values is not fair to the pastor. Of course a pastor will try and dissuade a patient from requesting suicide and will pray with them and their family, but asking him to be present is, in effect, asking him to condone a serious sin.”

The archbishop rightly sees that there is a danger in people intent on suicide trying to get the Church and her ministers to approve their action. Now, why would they want to do that? Why too, come to think of it, would the Canadian government want to force Catholic institutions to provide physician-assisted suicide, and Catholic doctors to refer patients for it? The answer lies in the “dictatorship of relativism” that a wise man once warned us about. This is the refusal to tolerate anyone or any institution that makes absolute claims. And when it comes to the sacredness of life, the Catholic Church is making an absolute claim about the inviolable nature of the person, from conception to natural death. This absolutism is clearly not acceptable in Canada. And not only in Canada.

But the absoluteness of the claim about the sanctity of life is in fact our only guarantee that one day, when we are weak, defenceless and browbeaten, some medic will not approach us with a lethal injection.

That is why, more than ever, we need to speak up for the sacredness of life: it is not simply that we want to protect those who are near the end of life, but also that we want to uphold the values that make life worth living at any stage of existence: the sense of security from outward threat, the sense of being loved, the sense of being valued as a human being. All of these have been undermined by the Canadian law. Let’s hope the Canadian bishops and the faithful, along with others of goodwill, do not give up this fight any time soon.