The first responses to our reader survey on life-and-death ethical decisions started to trickle in about a week after publication in March. It took only a day or two to spot a trend: the majority of respondents were older, and they were inclined to take a more liberal view of issues such as abortion and physician-assisted suicide than respondents from the general population who had completed the same survey.
As more completed surveys arrived in the mail and online over the next few weeks, it became clear that the most dramatic gap between our churchgoing readers and the general population concerned end-of-life issues. The 904 responses we received showed readers overwhelmingly support medical interventions to end the suffering of people who are so sick or injured that they have no hope of recovering. In some end-of-life scenarios posed by the survey, there was as much as a 40 percent differential between readers and the general public.
Dozens of readers took the time to include a personal note describing their experience of watching a loved one suffer needlessly before passing away. Their stories were heartbreaking and cathartic. A deep and genuine compassion flowed between the lines of every one of them.
It’s possible that the big gap between readers and the general population on issues such as euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide reflected the higher number of older respondents among our readership. Older people have more experience with end-of-life realities, so their responses would skew the comparison. Maybe so, but surely that’s an argument for paying closer attention to what they say, not discounting it. They’ve been there; seen it up close.
Euthanasia (medically terminating a life) and physician-assisted suicide (medically helping someone to end their own life) are both illegal in Canada. Numerous polls have shown growing support for decriminalizing end-of-life interventions. Professional associations such as the Royal Society of Canada and political groups such as the Dying With Dignity Committee of the Quebec National Assembly are calling on governments to change the law or relax enforcement under certain conditions.
End-of-life issues will increasingly dominate the national agenda as the population ages and medical technology advances. These are tough, complex and emotional questions, and Canadians will look for leadership as the national debate heats up. Don’t be surprised if they look to the United Church, because the United Church has a reputation for taking on difficult issues that others would rather ignore.
Within the church today, though, there is not much in the way of leadership on these issues. The church has been all but silent on euthanasia and assisted suicide for more than 15 years. For the sake of its own aging membership, for the sake of an aging nation whose values it helped to shape, the United Church needs to embrace end-of-life questions as a pastoral and prophetic priority. The compassion that so clearly inspires its members needs to inform the national conversation. This may turn out to be the major ethical debate of our time, and it would be a sin for the church to stay silent when it can offer so much.
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