Following a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Canada on Feb. 6 to strike down as unconstitutional the ban on assisted dying, the Anglican Church of Canada’s task force on physician-assisted suicide will release this spring a new document outlining the church’s response and guidelines for how Anglicans should work within the new legal reality.
“I rather expected this would happen,” said the Rev. Canon Eric Beresford, an ethicist from the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island who serves on the task force, which began meeting in late 2014, following Quebec’s decision to pass legislation allowing for assisted dying. “It now means that the previous statement of the Anglican Church of Canada, Care in Dying, at the very least needs to be redeveloped in response to this situation.”
Care in Dying: A Consideration of the Practices of Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide was published in 2000 and commended for study across the church by General Synod. While acknowledging the diversity of opinions on the matter within the church, the report suggested that the church should “oppose any shift in public policy leading to the legalization of euthanasia in our society at the present time.”
The shift, however, has happened, and the question now is how the church will respond.
Beresford, who was the editor for Care in Dying, said it would be important to remember the theological principles that have guided the church thus far.
“The principle that was at stake in the 1990s when we wrote our last document was the notion of care,” he said. “[The Supreme Court] decision indicates that, by and large, our culture-and many in our church-have come to the conclusion that, in some cases, care does involve assisting people in their dying.”
For Beresford, the church’s starting point in this conversation must be an awareness that “care is something which is exercised both toward the individual with whom we are dealing, but also in regards to the wider society and the implications of those actions for the well-being of all.”
The Supreme Court decision changes both the legal reality and, when it comes into effect a year from now, the reality on the ground. However, Beresford noted that the court’s ruling was somewhat “ambiguous” when it came to the full ramifications of its decision.
The decision states that the ban on assisted dying is unconstitutional insofar as it denies those suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring and intolerable suffering” of their rights to “life, liberty and security of the person,” and that an absolute prohibition of euthanasia is not necessary in order to protect the lives of the vulnerable. However, it does not outline how broadly terms like “grievous and irremediable” can be applied.
“Each of these terms is appallingly vague,” said Beresford. “This decision, while some think it may have finished the conversation, in fact blows it wide open, and requires some very careful critical thinking.”
Beresford went on to suggest that one of the key questions will be ascertaining what circumstances allow a doctor to aid a patient in dying, and what criteria are required to ensure that patients receive proper counselling in the face of these decisions.
He estimated that the task force will likely have a new statement of some kind prepared by spring, but that it was not yet clear whether this would replace or simply provide an update to Care in Dying.