It is almost a certainty that every religion will weigh in on the issue of physician- assisted death (PAD), if they haven’t already. And why not? After all, what is a more important issue for religion than life and death? Pretty straightforward, it seems. But not really. As we wade deeper into these turbulent waters, the issue of any religion imposing its values on Canada becomes more contentious.
Personally, I agonize over this. On the one hand, I resist the urge to make any pronouncement on this or any other matter that would impose Jewish values on Canada. On the other hand, how can one remain silent on this critical matter? Is there room in between? Perhaps.
There are universal values shared by most religions that would be irresponsible not to share. These values, it can be argued, are not “right because God said them.” Instead, God said them because they are right. This nuance makes a world of difference.
Classical Judaism has been very clear. In Jewish law, no one has the “right” to actively take their life. Suicide is seen as the murder of one’s own self, a unique instance wherein perpetrator and victim are one and the same. At the same time, people retain the right to refuse treatment, a right that obviously is not encouraged, but is also not denied.
Parts of this general position do not coalesce with the Canadian consensus, if there is such a consensus. I am, therefore, sensitive not to suggest that Canadians embrace a Jewish position on this matter, even though I would not hesitate to convey to members of the Jewish community a principled opposition to suicide, and by extension, to PAD.
Yet I’m ready to share my concerns about this matter. I do so imbued with traditional Jewish values, deeply rooted religious values, but approaching it as a Canadian and addressing those of different faith persuasions, including those who are persuaded to the disbelief in God.
What is being contemplated in the proposed Bill C-14 runs diametrically contrary to the hallowed objective of physicians to save and enhance life. The implications on the psyche of physicians are enormous. With termination as part of the new medical vocabulary, medical practitioners will have their determination compromised. Naturally, patients will wonder whether their doctors are fully dedicated to their survival.
There are other concerns, including the impact this change could have on the behaviour of the general population. Will this engender a shift in attitude, from fighting through pain to taking the available escape?
Our country is filled with people who went through harrowing times, on the brink of giving up, who are today grateful they didn’t take that step, a step from which there is no second chance. Again, this won’t happen overnight, but the seeds will have been planted for a more resigned approach to life’s challenges, leading to many missed fulfilments and true achievements.
Whether or not one believes in God, this shift is not a welcome change. It’s not good for health care. It’s not good for doctors and patients. It’s not good for our approach to life. It’s not good for strengthening our resolve to overcome challenges rather than giving up. Plain and simple, it’s not good. Our understandable sensitivity to the suffering of others will come back to bite us.
Our reverence for life and our awe of its sanctity have defined us. The passion to save, the inexhaustible energy to treat, the infinite capacity to care to the last natural breath, these are not merely religious values. They are universal values, Canadian values. They are religiously imbued, but also stand on their own. These are values the right to which we deny at our peril.
Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and chair of the Trillium Gift of Life Network.