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.