A most polarizing issue needing political leadership has yet to make the election campaign trail, but recently Canada's doctors reminded us that dying awaits a legislative response.
This is the grim reaper no political party can avoid: The Supreme Court has ruled that in February, 2016, laws that criminalize assisted suicide will no longer be valid and gave Parliament until then, if it chooses, to craft new legislation. The court ruling is broad, allowing killing to be done by "persons familiar with end-of-life decisions," in situations that are "grievous and irremediable." The court ruled that denying assisted suicide infringes on our individual right to "life, liberty and security of person" – Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Understanding each party's view on a law to facilitate this ruling is a tricky question to throw into a campaign soundbite scrum. Canada is turning a new page in responding to a rights-based argument for autonomy over death, and a careful law for our actions is now required. Political silence on death care is not an option. This is a law that will affect every family in the land, and, as our doctors have reminded us, the personal morality and conscience rights of medical teams is intimately involved with it.
In June and July, the Canadian Medical Association polled members on their views on the legislation, and announced the results at its annual meeting: 63 per cent of doctors declared that "they would refuse to give medical aid in dying." Saskatoon hematologist Sheila Harding told the CBC: "I feel strongly that hastening death is not part of medicine. I think it eviscerates what medicine is intended to be. I think that asking physicians to be killers is contrary to the very core of medicine."
This path to dying on demand is so nuanced through our moral views that I doubt you will see much faith-based activism on this issue on the campaign trail. But certainly the faith community is engaged for the legislation. Religion has long been a source that helps our interior life face death, a sacred exchange, where the "perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable" (I Corinthians 15:53), and we depart with a view of heaven in sight.
While many Canadians vote according to their religious values, we also realize that when a debate is upon us, it requires work other than placard holding. That means the discussion over what to do about death is happening not in courts, but where it always has, in the educational process of what it means to be in relationship with God. That discovery may be in quiet reflection with sacred texts, discussion at a dinner table, learning at places of worship or the religious classroom, or just the honest exchange between friends.
Some in the tribe of Christian believers would say earth is a dress rehearsal for heaven, so practise at being decent and talking to your Creator. Frankly, it's tougher than that. There is too much sin to navigate a solution of simply being nice; the biblical edit to "love your neighbour as yourself" has pitfalls. I have no trouble thinking of examples where my own love has been selective, coercive and arbitrary. That fickle human tendency to love, or not, is in the mix that is shaping conscience objections to euthanasia in Canada.
Some Canadians, such as Miriam Toews, in All My Puny Sorrows, have used story to help us understand family members who suffer. Others have taken their experience into activism, for and against assisted death. The accounts of court-bound families that brought us to this point, in my view, were about people who would have said to their loved one, "I believe you are valuable, I care when you hurt, I desire what is best for you."
What we have before us now is how to express that kind of love, beyond the autonomy of individuals to the well-being of a nation. We're lawmaking for a new future on what it will mean to care.
Eds Note: An earlier version incorrectly said that the Supreme Court has required Parliament to craft a law allowing physician-assisted suicide on or before February, 2016. In fact, the existing Criminal Code sections that forbid assisted suicide will be deemed invalid in February, 2016, unless Parliament and provincial legislatures enact new laws consistent with the Supreme Court's decision on this issue.