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Do we have a 'right' to die?

Do we have a 'right' to die? This is the fundamental question that the courts in Canada are being asked to answer in the case of Gloria Taylor, a woman in British Columbia who has contracted ALS and who is petitioning Canadian courts to allow a third party to assist her to suicide at a time of her choosing.

Matt Gurney has advocated in these pages of the Holy Post Blog that Ms. Taylor be granted her request. In his opinion, her 'right' to a death with dignity should not be impeded by what he calls a 'well intended' law which infringes upon her right to determine the method and timing of her death. His passionate advocacy is fired by his description of the horrific prognosis that she as her disease progresses: progressive degeneration of her muscle functions leading to the loss of her motor functioning, trapping a cogent mind inside an increasingly useless body. It is a sentence that no one would want to face. But does such a fate mean that we have a right to demand of our society to terminate our life at the time of our choosing ? Is the fact that suffering faces us as our bodies decay mean that we have the right to 'opt out' at government expense? I think not.

We do not have a "right to die." Many people now speak of such a thing, but without the proper understanding of the terminology they use. A "right" is a moral claim. We do not have a claim on death. Rather, death has a claim on us! We do not decide when our life will end, any more than we decided when it began. Much less does someone else -- a relative, a doctor, or a legislator--decide when our life will end. None of us is master over life and death.

What we do have a right to is proper care. It is never "care" in any sense of the word, to terminate life, even if that life is full of suffering. We have no right to terminate life.

There are groups in our country pushing for the "right" to use lethal injections on the seriously ill, or to remove their food and water. We must oppose such moral nonsense with all our strength. And the time to oppose it is now, before it becomes solidified in law. Why? Because as a society we are judged by our care and concern for the weakest among us: the sick, underprivileged, the widow and the orphan. These are the people who are most in danger of having their lives judged as being 'not worth living', not for any reason other than able bodied or healthy people can not conceive of wanting to live under conditions which the disadvantaged and sick must daily face. It is our fear of pain and the perceived future inability to manifest our wishes and desires in the face of illness that is leading us to false create a 'right to die'.

If assisted suicide is not the answer, what is? The answer offered through our medical system is palliative care. The WHO defines it as an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual. It is the act of offering to accompany one through the final stages of life for it is the fear of facing death alone that is a root fear for all humanity.

Ms. Taylor is asking that the state provide the means and assistance needed to end her life whenever she sees fit. The state should respond not with a needle or a prescription, but by ensuring that she does not suffer needlessly, nor walk her final days alone. It is to help her see her death not as an enemy to be cheated but a natural part of the entirety of her existence. To help her find meaning in her final days rather than offering the meaningless termination of life in a fruitless attempt to escape the indignities of dying.


  1. "A 'right' is a moral claim."

    Where did you get that idea, Tim? A right is a legal standard to which all citizens are entitled, whether or not they choose to avail themselves of it. You may be thinking of it in a religious sense, but you need to broaden your scope on such matters so that it will encompass all those who do not hold your religious views to be absolute.

    "Ms. Taylor is asking that the state provide the means and assistance needed to end her life whenever she sees fit."

    No she is not. She is asking for the state to remove impediments that would allow her to work with her own doctor to provide her with the means to control her own pain and ease herself into death. A direct quote in her own words:

    "I am asking the mercy of the court to allow me the option to work with my doctor to ease my pain and help me end my life peacefully and with dignity...I should be able to make the choices about how much suffering to endure based on my own beliefs and values."

    Based on her own beliefs and values. Not somebody else's.

    " It is to help her see her death not as an enemy to be cheated but a natural part of the entirety of her existence."

    And who says she does not already see death in that manner -- according to HER OWN beliefs and values? Perhaps she is not interested in looking for "meaning" -- maybe she already knows.

    When it comes to dying, we do not have a "right" to it so much as we need to realize that it is inevitable; but we should be allowed a choice of where and when and by what method, if that is possible. If you choose not to interfere in the natural debilitation and disintegration of your own body's function, that would be your choice. But it is not the one everyone would make. And people need to be allowed to make that choice for themselves without fear of legal entanglements and penalties for those who willingly help them in their choice.

  2. Lady Janus: Respectfully, society cannot organize itself exclusively upon the rubric of 'personal beliefs and values'. Just because Ms. Taylor wants to do something doesn't mean that she gets to do it.

    She is asking a third party to end her life. If she could do it herself then no one would have the right to stop her. But she wants someone else to do it. It is this that crosses the line.

    First off, how do you reconcile euthanasia with 'do no harm'? That is the primary obligations which doctors take upon their shoulders when they take up their vocation. Palliative care meets the requirement because its aim is a pain free and meaningful death. Ms. Taylor's request is for a doctor to 'do harm' - to end an indisputably human life. I don't see how that can be reconciled with the Hippocratic Oath.

    Further, there are the 'slippery slope' issues. How can they be prevented when they have appeared every place where euthanasia has been tried. Is the fulfillment of one person's wish worth the undesired deaths of others? I do not think so, especially when there is an alternative which will ensure a pain free death and the patient is within her rights to refuse any treatment, letting the disease win.

    Again Lady Janus, I think that the greatest issue that fuels the 'popularity' of euthanasia is the our incapacity to accept that life is not worth living if we are sufficiently handicapped or impaired to prevent our being able to do anything we want. To this prejudice, I offer one significant piece of evidence that demonstrates its error: Stephen Hawking.

    Fr. Tim

    P.S. Has the weather been pleasant on the coast this summer? It has been nothing short of glorious in my little corner of the country. It took a long time to get going, having endured the wettest spring in history, but once July arrived it has been picture perfect. I sincerely hope you can say the same!

  3. "She is asking a third party to end her life."

    No she is not. She has already asked, and her doctor is willing except for the fact that he would be arrested for murder. What she IS asking is for the doctor to be protected from prosecution for assisting her. And the only help that her doctor would be giving her would be by way of a prescription.

    " do you reconcile euthanasia with 'do no harm'?"

    If you are talking about the first admonition of the Hippocratic Oath, I have not mentioned it at all because most doctors these days don't bother with it anymore. It is outdated and does not apply to our level of sophistication in medicine. The Oath also prohibits surgery.

    Besides, sometimes there is no "no harm." Sometimes, the best you can accomplish is the least harm. And the only authority I recognize in that aspect is the one being harmed -- if she says that being forced to remain alive and suffering is more harmful to her than a painless and dignified death, then her word is enough for me. She is the one going through it.

    "Palliative care meets the requirement because its aim is a pain free and meaningful death."

    It does not meet HER requirements at all. And who says her death has to have "meaning?" That's not what she wants. Why are you insisting that she must?

    I am not concerned with what people are keen to call "slippery slopes." I don't like the phrase, nor its application to everything for which someone wants to object. It's lazy, and far too broad a brush to use on someone else's personal canvas. We are talking about ONE woman and what SHE wants. Her rights over her own body, and life and death.

    We need to get rid of the word, "euthanasia" in this discussion. Too many people associate it with assassination and the killing of pets, and it therefore has a negative emotional impact which unfairly sways people away from the actual issue, which is the individual's right to control what happens to his or her own body -- including, as far as possible, when and how one may die.

    This is not about "society." This is about the individual.

  4. Hi Tim,

    You write: "...especially when there is an alternative which will ensure a pain free death and the patient is within her rights to refuse any treatment, letting the disease win."

    Letting the "disease win" is not always pain free, and it may not be the way a person chooses to exit the world. We can all agree that people have the inherent right to refuse a medical treatment (even if it such refusal substantially shortens their life) if they are of sound mind and have the capacity to appreciate the nature of their decision.

    Now...I appreciate that assisting with a suicide or committing an act of euthanasia are different, but I ask you to consider this: Why is it that many pet owners will euthanize a sick and suffering pet and do so with the clearest of consciences (firm in the knowledge that such an act is truly a humane and selfless act) yet be hesitant about ending the life of a suffering human family member?

    Why is human suffering "tolerable" by society - yet permitting the suffering of a non-human animal considered cruel and inhumane?

    If one act is good, how can the other act be bad just because the one being euthanized is human?

    I would appreciate direct answers to my questions.


  5. Martin: Simple. People is people and animals are animals. People are sentient, self aware beings with a self consciousness and ability to understand and communicate with symbols. Some animals can develop similar rudimentary skills but no other being matches us. We are unique individuals worthy of existence and protection under the law.

    Animals are animals.

    People possess rights. Animals are due consideration but do not possess rights. My dog is still just a dog no matter how much I may anthropomorphize him. The fact than I can euthanize him if I chose to do so is evidence in itself that we are not equal under the law.

    Now, would you be so kind as to answer a question for me? Do you believe that people in a medically induced coma perceives anything while they are 'under'? I have cared for an elderly priest who drifted into our diocese at the same time as I was ordained. He had retired from the military as a navy chaplain and he moved into the area. He was placed into such a coma for 28 days after suffering a major aneurysm. He has no memories of the entire period (as well as most of the six months that followed) but he always said he never experienced any pain despite undergoing a series of life threatening operations. There were enough monitors that watched his heart, pressure and brain activity and there was no sign of distress during that period.

    So, since his experience seems to point to the effectiveness of such a coma in ensuring no conscious suffering, why would it be inadequate?

    Look, people are passively euthanized in such a manner all the time. But surely you remember that there is a difference between passive and active euthanasia?


  6. P.S. BTW, you were in the moral theology class at UWO University Hospital when the (then) head of the transplant department told us that even then (20+ years ago) any patient that died in pain did so only due to a sudden traumatic death absent medical care or due to the incompetence of the physician.

    As someone whose spent many, many hours in hospitals and in care conferences with families, I know that they are even better at pain control today.


  7. Hi Tim,

    You write: "People possess rights". No argument there, but is it not true that one of the most basic rights we possess is autonomy over our own bodies?

    Not sure that you have answered my question. Humans are animals. Dogs are animals. One type of animal may suffer, while the other may not. If humans are a "higher" animal, then why do we insist on treating them worse than a dog?

    You ask: "Do you believe that people in a medically induced coma perceives anything while they are 'under'?" I am not a doctor, but it would seem to me that we can induce states in humans which alter their perception and memory of pain. So, I would answer yes. I do not understand how the case you cite is relevant to the question at hand.

    Lastly, I do not deny that there are many medical techniques to control physical pain. Being drugged up, or placed in a medically induced coma, may obliterate my memory of my physical pain, but it may also offend my notion of what it means to be fully human.

    Why should I not have the liberty to give instructions to have my life ended rather than endure the indignity of shitting in my diapers and urinating through a catheter? Why must I endure the indignity of being tube fed through my stomach lining, and riddled with bed sores like a slab of rotting meat? Why must I linger while organ after organ fails, and I cease to be an individual? Unaware, incontinent, and rotting beyond recognition?

    I am fine if others wish to endure such a death, but I harbour no such wish. Why must the law be constructed in such a way that I am denied autonomy over my own body? Why must the law deny me a right to a dignified death? Why must the law obligate me to suffer in ways that I do not wish to? Why does the law allow my dog a more dignified death than I am permitted?

    I too have sat at the bedsides of my loved ones as they have died. I still do not understand why we put them through agonies and indignities that we would regard as cruel and selfish if we inflicted them upon a beloved pet. Why must the law treat humans worse than a lowly dog?


  8. Martin: No one who desires so will be treated in the final stage of dying in the manner you suggest. Feeding tubes are not required if the patient does not want it. In fact if the patient is in final stages of death, it is hardly ever used as it will only serve to prolong the dying process.

    I cannot think of a single case in the past 20 years where the horrors you described took place.

    Finally, it is because we consider your existence to be far more important than that of your dog that the laws protect you from being euthanasized while a dog will likely meet that fate. It because human life is a good in itself that it is protected. But you know this already...

    Fr. Tim

    P.S. Enjoying this great summer weather?

  9. Hi Tim,

    The horrors I describe happen every single day. I have witnessed such events with my own eyes - as recently as last year in an Ontario hospital. I am shocked that you claim otherwise.

    As for feeding tubes, your church declares that they are not an "extraordinary measure" but rather basic care. Was that not the entire basis for the Terry Shaivo circus?

    When it comes to sickness and dying, I think most folks want options that are legal to end their suffering. What you and your church are promoting is a one size fits all approach to dying where every human must endure a "natural death" whether or not they wish it.

    While the RCC and some of its adherents may believe that there is an inherent redemptive value to human suffering, I simply point out that not all of us share in your belief. Folks simply want legal options to decide when they have had enough.

    I am the first one to admit that euthansia carries the risk of abuse, however, such risks can be mitigated and controlled. We do not ban marriages because some marriages are abusive. We do not ban financial transactions because some people are cheated. We put processes and laws in place to ensure fair treatment. The same can be done for euthansia.

    Listen - the religious right is always going on about putting human rights issues before the electorate for a vote. Why not settle this question with a binding referendum? I predict overwhelming support for euthansia - even among those who self-identify as Catholic. Why? Because people can see that we often treat dying members of our own species worse than we treat our pets.

    We ask people to endure what we would never countenance for a dog.


  10. "People is people and animals are animals."

    People are animals, and all animals are sentient in their own fashion, Tim. And they also have rights.


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