(This editorial first appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”?John Donne, “Meditation 17.”
With those words in mind, recently I watched a very moving and compelling video whose subject was Dr. Donald Low. An infectious disease specialist, Dr. Low played a significant leadership role in 2003, helping Toronto face the sudden crisis of SARS, a deadly viral respiratory disease. In February this year, Dr. Low was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour; he died Sept. 18. The video I watched was made a few days before his death. Dr. Low expressed no anxiety about dying itself, but talked candidly of his fear of a long and drawn-out painful death. Why, he asked, isn’t assisted suicide offered as an option for people facing end-of-life issues, enabling them to die with dignity?
Some fifteen years before, the Anglican Church of Canada addressed the issues Dr. Low raised when it issued a report entitled, Care in Dying: A Consideration of the Practices of Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide. The report states: “We believe that respect for persons would not be well served by a change in law and practice to enable a physician, family member, or any private citizen to take the life of another, or assist in their suicide. The Christian response is always one of hope. From this hope there arises the commitment to give all members of society, especially the most vulnerable, the assurance that they will be supported in all circumstances of their lives, that they will not have dehumanizing medical interventions forced upon them, and that they will not be abandoned in their suffering.”
I find myself in a quandary with this issue. Do I agree with Dr. Low or the church report? I am challenged by the daunting question of who decides—the individual, the politicians, and/or the medical profession. The perspective becomes acutely different from that of someone sitting on a government legislative bench or behind a physician’s desk when I am the one who is gravely ill or at the bedside of someone I love who is dying. Dr. Low recognized the significance of personal experience when he spoke of his medical colleagues who disagree with assisted suicide: “I wish,” he said in the video, “they could live in my body for 24 hours.” We live in a society that places one of its highest values on personal autonomy. Should the final decision on life and death matters be solely that of the individual?
I am looking to the church for help. All of the issues related to this most complex ethical matter are sacred. I do not need the church to solve it. I do need the church to help shape relevant questions and use its gifts of scripture, tradition and reason to offer fresh insights for the world in which I live.