Life is ‘larger than one’s ownership of it’

Diocese of Algoma bishop Stephen Andrews' parents, Irving, Jr., and Emmy Lou. Irving, Jr. died in October after a massive stroke. Photo: Contributed
Diocese of Algoma bishop Stephen Andrews' parents, Irving, Jr., and Emmy Lou. Irving, Jr. died in October after a massive stroke. Photo: Contributed
By on April 9, 2015

Excerpts from an interview with the Anglican Journal and from his column in the Algoma Anglican (April 2014):

My dad died in October. He had a massive stroke, and my brother and I were able to fly down to be with him and he lingered for a little less than a week.

We talked to the doctors about not taking any heroic efforts; he had signed a life directive saying that he didn’t want any heroic measures. And so it was a real question for us, about the degree to which his suffering was something we should seek to shorten by shorten…And just as we were discussing this, I saw him with his own family-two sisters-and people from the community rallying around him… There was a sense in which, in his need and suffering, he was contributing to the depth of human community around him. He gave us the opportunity to care for him. I saw my aunts minister to my dad in a way that has completely changed my relationship with them, and so there’s a sense in which it is not just about the individual. And just because a person may not have, let’s say, a cognitive function, or may be on some kind of life support system, it doesn’t mean that they are not making a contribution to the integrity of our humanity and the integrity of our community.

I think that when we diminish the value of life in this fashion, then we are devaluing all of our humanity and the value of human community.

***

When it comes to the conditions of our dying, how much control ought we to have?

The arguments can be complex and deeply personal, involving technology, medical codes of ethics and an appropriate understanding of human dignity. But two Anglican bishops in Quebec, Dennis Drainville (Quebec) and Barry Clarke (Montreal), have weighed in on the discussion. In October (2013), they expressed concern that the bill presents “risks for the vulnerable, including the elderly, people suffering from clinical depression and those with disabilities.

“Christian thought through the ages has been guided by the principle that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and our life is to be seen as a gift entrusted to us by God,” they wrote. “Life is thus seen as something larger than any individual person’s ownership of it, and is not simply ours to discard.”

A bias in favour of life is something that the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians has strongly endorsed. “Euthanasia and/or assisted suicide have never been part of the practice of palliative care,” they write, while pointing out that the World Health Organization’s definition of palliative care is “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families.”

But the bishops here voice another core, and yet neglected, Christian conviction: that in putting us in community, God has made us mutually dependent. There are profound philosophical and theological questions about the existence of suffering, to be sure, questions that we may never resolve this side of heaven. But this is certain: part of what it means to be human is to be bound to others in suffering-both in sharing our suffering with them and in bearing their suffering ourselves.

St. Paul wrote, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves” (Rom. 14:7). The great New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer called this verse “the basis of life in Christian society.” Our General Synod acknowledged this interdependence in a resolution on assisted suicide passed in 1998: “The Christian vocation is to keep faith with and show respect for another by keeping company with them through the terminal stages of a disease or the life-span of a disability…The Christian response is always one of hope. This hope exists in the context of the physical, emotional, and spiritual support offered by the community.”

Both in preparing for death and in dying, it is important that we respect and treasure the sacred nature of life and the nexus of human relationships in which God has placed us. Where these things are honoured and preserved, advance care planning can be an act of compassion and a source of comfort both for ourselves and our survivors.

Stephen Andrews is the bishop of the Anglican diocese of Algoma. 

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