Of all the bold new initiatives on the Trudeau government's to-do list, there's one it really doesn't want to talk about: the new law that will legalize doctor-assisted dying. The Supreme Court has given the government a deadline of June 6 – just two and a half months away.
So what's the problem? After all, an overwhelming number of Canadians want the right to physician-assisted death. The problem is the details. Should we have a narrow law or a broad one? Who is eligible and who is not? What about people with mental illness? What about kids? What about the seriously demented, who can no longer decide for themselves? If your gaga granny made an advance consent directive, then who, exactly, will determine whether she's too gaga to go on living?
No jurisdiction in the world has sorted all these issues out. There is no political capital in this. There is only grief. On top of that, the federal government is risking a major run-in with the Catholic church, which flatly opposes physician-assisted dying on religious grounds. The Catholic health networks include a huge range of faith-based facilities across the country. St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, one of the city's oldest, has said it won't permit physician-assisted dying. Ottawa's biggest palliative care hospital, Bruyère Continuing Care, says it won't, either. Privately, the CEO of one major Catholic institution in Ontario says it will never happen on his watch – not because he himself opposes the law, but because it would violate the principles the place was built on.
The Dying With Dignity folks and civil liberties associations strongly disagree. Assisted death, they argue, is a human right and should be provided everywhere. If a hospital doesn't comply, then it should lose public funding. The government's own parliamentary committee report on assisted death agrees that no institution should be exempt on religious grounds.
In every community across the Western world, the church (or the synagogue) was there before the state was. It was the church that cared for the sick, the orphaned and the homeless. In Canada, Catholic hospitals have pioneered health services for the homeless, for people with drug addictions, and for those in need of palliative care. They are valued partners of provincial governments.
But now, a great many people believe they are an anachronism. They think there's no place for religious values in the public sphere.
I disagree. Many religious institutions provide an ethic of care that secular outfits can't match.
"The Catholic sisters knew that their essential job was to provide love and compassion and caring," says Daniel Lussier, chair of the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada. "They never forgot the human element."
I once got to know a hospital run by the Salvation Army. Most of its patients were immigrants, and many were non-Christian. The CEO, a Salvation Army officer, was a brilliant administrator who worked for a pittance. The senior staff, who were of all faiths and none, shared a sense of higher purpose. Their patients weren't yet "customers"or "clients." After the hospital was forced into a merger, it lost what made it special. Many of the staff moved on, and that was the end of that.
Salvation Army hospitals never did perform abortions. So what? Other hospitals did. Across Canada, not all hospitals are obliged to provide all services. Some don't do abortions. Some don't do dialysis. Why should every hospital be required to provide assisted death?
I'm a nonbeliever. I do not admire the Catholic church. I believe that assisted dying should be legal, and that it should be available to everyone without a lot of hassle, just as abortion is. But the scorn and contempt that many people heap on religious belief astonishes me. The ostracization of Trinity Western University, for example, is one of the more shameful examples of intolerance in our time. Sanctimonious provincial law societies decided that because Trinity Western asks its students to respect traditional Christian values, in a way that is perfectly legal, anyone who graduates from its law school isn't fit to practice.
Our tolerance for religious belief should extend quite far. That's why we've decided that Sikhs can wear kirpans, and Mounties can wear turbans, and Muslim women can wear the niqab in citizenship court. All these decisions have been robustly supported by the finest liberal minds. But when it comes to Christians – forget it.
Our tolerance extends only as far as those religions we think it's fashionable to tolerate. In British Columbia, a native community is battling a company that wants to build a ski resort on land the community believes is inhabited by the Grizzly Bear Spirit. The case is going to the Supreme Court. We're all for that. But if a bakery won't sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples, we want it shut down. If Christian hospitals want to observe their foundational beliefs about the sanctity of life, we want to cut them off. Where's the tolerance in that?