Dying with dignity

PQ’s “Dying with Dignity” commission is recommending that their provincial government allow a limited form of euthanasia/assisted suicide.

Quebec’s “Dying with Dignity” commission is recommending that their provincial government allow a limited form of euthanasia/assisted suicide. Under the recommendations, terminally ill individuals would be able to request the help of a doctor to end their life, if the individual is suffering from an incurable disease, is experiencing intolerable physical or psychological pain, and is palliative. Euthanasia/assisted suicide would be within the realm of medical care, and would be recognized as “medical aid in dying.”

(In euthanasia, a third party, such as a doctor, takes the action that ends the individual’s life, while in assisted suicide the dying person takes the final action that causes death.)

A recent call in show on CBC Radio debated the issue of euthanasia/assisted suicide. Callers shared their experiences of journeying with people through debilitating diseases, and the process of dying. Those who expressed support for euthanasia/assisted suicide were responding from a place of compassion and love.

While I do not support euthanasia/assisted suicide, I understand why many people favor the Quebec proposal, and see it as a compassionate, and humane response to dying. We do not want to watch someone we love suffer from a painful, and debilitating disease, that robs their body of its ability to function. We have an aversion to pain and suffering. Out of compassion for the dying, we want their suffering to end.

The euthanasia/assisted suicide debate is often framed in terms of human dignity, and we hear frequent references to ‘dying with dignity’. There is a perception, and a fear, that we can lose our dignity in the dying process. We have come to equate human dignity with a properly functioning body. In this view, dignity depends on the health of the body. A dying body is seen as undignified, and as a moral affront; it robs the individual of ‘quality of life’, and it causes suffering to the dying and those around them.

We are developing a societal vision of dying with dignity that, in my view, relies too heavily on the vigor of the body, and ignores the psycho-spiritual dimensions of human existence.

Most Canadians would agree that human life is precious. Many of us believe that human life is sacred.  In the Christian world view, which I share, the human person is more than a physical body. We are animated by a spiritual soul, and we share in the dignity of the image of God. Body and spirit, precious and sacred, the human person has an innate and inviolable dignity. We do not lose our dignity when our body breaks down.

The fundamental concern of medical care, especially when caring for the terminally ill, must be concern for the whole person. Suffering and death, more than any other experience in life, reveals the spiritual dimension of our existence. A comprehensive debate on euthanasia/assisted suicide must include a rigorous discussion on the concept of human dignity. While death is the disintegration of the body, it may also be a moment of exceptional grace, when we discover fully and completely our imperishable dignity, and meet its author face to face.

Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan has a background in education and catechesis, and degrees in English and Theology. She writes every other week. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at mcewan.lou@gmail.com.