Dying – and Living– with Dignity

The concept of medical assistance in dying (MAID) had been making headlines long before the Canadian government first introduced federal legislation in 2016 to end the ban on medical personnel being able to help patients end their lives.

That legislation has been expanded since then, and as of March, 2023 people with mental illnesses will also be eligible to opt for MAID.

The latest report from Ottawa on medical assistance in dying, which offers statistics for 2021, indicates that 10,064 MAID deaths took place in Canada last year, a figure which represents 3.3% of all deaths in Canada in 2021. That figure is up 32.4% over 2020, and anecdotal evidence suggests the practice continues to rise.

In the years since legislation was first introduced, we have seen many profiles of people who have opted to end their lives with input from doctors, nurse-practitioners, pharmacists and even family members.

These stories are often positioned as offering the suffering ones “death with dignity.” But as these stories unwind, often featuring not only great pain but also loneliness, isolation, poverty, and mental health challenges, they shine a light on how society has not done enough to provide all Canadians with a life dignity long before we determine what a death with dignity actually entails.

As Catholics, we believe our dignity is inherent because we are made in the image and likeness of God: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn. 1”27) What could be more dignified that reflecting our Creator?

A wealth of Catholic Social Teaching reminds us that we are each invaluable and that our lives are sacred. It also tells us that we are members of a society, with responsibilities for each other. Therefore, a rising number of MAID cases should call out to us that we are falling behind in our responsibilities because we are called to care for our brothers and sisters. They are not a burden but a reflection of God.

The inability of a person with medical issues to meet the rent should never be cited as one of the motivations seek out an end to life. Nor should the need to use a food bank. That these challenges exist – and to such an extent that life no longer seems worth living for vulnerable people–should call out to the rest of us to offer assistance. These needs are why we talk about corporal works of mercy, the responsibilities we face as members of the human race.

Similarly, when someone cites loneliness as a reason to lose interest in life, our hearts should turn immediately to the essential Catholic doctrine of loving one’s neighbour. Even Christ himself suffered the pain of loneliness, calling out to his sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Can you not keep awake one hour?” (Mk 14:37) We are not to turn away because we are troubled by the suffering, but instead are called to answer, responding to that suffering.

Questions surrounding physical and mental suffering require medical expertise that goes far beyond the knowledge of the average lay person, but we can call out for more funding for medical research into various diseases, as well as into enhanced pain relief. We can also lobby for more funding for good palliative care, which can significantly improve the quality of life for dying patients. Sadly, the World Health Organization estimates that only about 14% of people who would benefit from palliative care have access to it.

On a good day, each of us knows that life is a beautiful gift. That beauty of that gift can soon become tarnished, however, when we feel lonely or frightened or are hurting. If we can focus on each of us being made in the image and likeness of God, we can be reminded of our worth, and the worth of others. When life becomes difficult, and the suffering that is an inevitable part of life, looms over us, we should be able to trust that our neighbours, and the society to which we belong, will help us and care for us. If we cannot answer with confidence, we need to do more.

Ending the perception that MAID is the only answer to suffering will not be easy. In some quarters, it will take a radical overhaul of our understanding of what our responsibilities are as part of the human family. It will take practical organization to ensure we are responding to isolation, that we are doing more to study pain relief, that we can offer strong, dignified palliative care.

We do not live only for ourselves, but for each other, too. That an increasing number of people see death as the only solution to problems should tell all of us that we have a great deal of work to do to support each other in times of sickness and suffering.

This we can say for certain: it will be work with – and for – dignity.

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