Medically Assisted Death In Canada

The View from the Pulpit

The Unitarian View

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Carter v. Canada that a competent adult with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition causing enduring suffering” can consent to the termination of their life with the assistance of a physician.

The court ordered the government of Canada to have a law on the books that codified that right by June 2016. The government did, adding nurse practitioners to the category of those who may provide assistance as well as pharmacists to dispense the necessary “substance.”

Village Stories wants to know the views of local clergy on the subject, so we put the following fact situation to them.

You are summoned to the bedside of one of your congregants, A.B. They are bedridden at home. They say they are suffering intolerable pain and distress that cannot be eliminated despite receiving pain medication and other narcotics. They have trouble swallowing and can’t go to the washroom without help.

They are mentally competent and in extreme pain. Their doctor has told them their condition is terminal but it could be six months or more before they would die.

Prescribed treatment only makes him sicker.

You have no reason to doubt them.

You have spoken to them and they are coherent and understands their situation.

They want medically assisted death.

What advice would you give?

Rev. Shawn Newton, Senior Minister of First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

I’ve served this congregation for ten years. Prior to my ordination ten years ago, I worked as a lay person for many years in various churches in the United States. Especially formative for me was the experience of taking care of scores of people living and dying with AIDS in the early 90’s.

Though I was only in my early-20s, this confrontation with life and death issues had an enduring impact on me. I saw far too many people suffer needlessly during those years and came to believe there had to be much more compassionate ways of seeing people through to the end of their lives. I am grateful for the growth of the hospice movement, but that approach doesn’t always match the needs of every person.

Unitarianism and Medically Assisted Death

For those who may not be familiar with Unitarianism: Unitarianism is arguably the most liberal of the branches of the Protestant Reformation. We trace our history back hundreds of years to those voices that yearned for true freedom of religious expression. While we grew out of Christianity, ours is a faith that, today, embraces wisdom from the world’s religions, from the advances in science, and from the leading edge of philosophy.

We are comprised of people who hold a wide range of beliefs about matters of theology. We do not share a common creed, but are, instead, held together by a set of guiding principles and a covenant with how we aspire to be with one another and the wider world.

Our tradition, over the past two centuries, came to question the existence of God (at least as traditionally defined) and rejected the notion of Hell. We are deeply humanistic and believe that this life, which may be all that we have, must be our focus. We have a strong commitment to building a better world, doing what we can to honour the web of creation and the worth and dignity of every person.

Our views on medical aid in dying derive from these central beliefs. We support the right of all people to maintain dignity in the face of death, and while we regard all life as sacred, we also respect an individual’s desire to bring their suffering to an end when they are faced with death.

My guidance to someone facing death and suffering:

As a minister, I would seek to clarify what was truly motivating the person to want to bring his or her life to an end. I would ask what brings meaning to their daily experience, and how they will decide when the cost of remaining alive to too high. I would ask what work remains before they die – whether there are things they need to say to the people in their life, such as “I love you” or “I forgive you” or “I’m sorry.” I would talk to them about what has mattered to them about the gift of their life, how they want to be remembered, and what they would like to pass on as a legacy in this world.