Sunday, February 8, 2015

Religion, Euthanasia and the Dilemma of My Dad's Own Death

The recent ruling by Canada's Supreme Court permitting physician-assisted suicide reminds me of columns I have written that touch on the subject of death and dying. They include this one, written in 2013 about religious views of physician-assisted suicideand the decision I faced as my own father faced death.    

When it comes to physician-assisted suicide, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, the answer is pretty much the same.

It isn’t permitted.

The Roman Catholic Church, Protestants of many kinds, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others all agree that life is sacred, and nobody should assist it to end.

Christians and Jews often refer to Deuteronomy 30:19-20 to bolster the case:

"I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life, and the length of your days."

Today, however, a majority of Canadians disagree—something that the Supreme Court recognized.

A poll conducted by the Environics Institute in two years ago found that that almost 70 percent of Canadians are in favour of euthanasia generally, and that 68 percent say those who help seriously ill people to commit suicide should not be charged with a crime.

The poll found majority support for euthanasia among every age group and in every region of Canada .

The highest support was found in Quebec and B.C., at 79 percent. The lowest, at 62 percent, was found in Manitoba and Saskatchewan .

The poll also found that older Canadians were more likely to support the practice than younger people—not surprising, since older people are closer to the time when that kind of decision needs to be made.  

If we’re honest, most of us are conflicted on the issue.

We believe life should be preserved and supported, but we don't want to see loved ones suffer—or contemplate our own suffering as we grow older. We wonder if helping someone pass from this life to the next isn’t a caring response.

Four years ago, I had to deal with this dilemma on behalf of my father.

A day before I arrived at his bedside in his nursing home in Ontario, he had slipped into a coma after a short illness. Nothing moved except for his chest, which heaved laboriously as he tried to breathe.

Medical staff at the facility asked if I would be OK with them giving him doses of morphine to ease his suffering. I readily consented to the request.

And who wouldn’t? It hurt to see him in such distress, especially since there was no hope of his ever wakening.

After receiving the morphine, his breathing grew easier. He settled down. He seemed at peace.

I was glad for him. But in my heart I knew—as I’m sure the medical staff knew—what was really at play here: We were assisting my dad to die.

The next morning, he slipped quietly and peacefully away while I held his hand and cradled his head.

Before he died, my dad had often expressed the wish for his life to be over. He wasn't suffering, but at the age of 86 he had lost interest in living.

 A widower, he was lonely, tired, often sick, required the use of a wheelchair, could no longer enjoy his books, had trouble swallowing, and sometimes was in pain.

He was ready to die; every night, he told me, he prayed that he would not wake up in the morning.

Some would say I assisted him to die. Others would say that I only helped to ease his suffering—death was a byproduct.

Whatever the answer, the line between the two is thin and fuzzy for me.

I think it probably the same for many others, too. 

Click here to read a collection of reflections in the Winnipeg Free Press about how the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu religions view the issue of physician-assisted suicide.

Click here to read my earlier post on this topic: Growing Old and Praying to Die.

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