Please excuse the long descriptive title, which seemed necessary under the circumstances! Christian opposition to assisted dying once more raised its head in Switzerland, where, according to a Reuters report,
Switzerland’s parliament voted against a bid to toughen controls on assisted suicide on Wednesday, rejecting concerns about foreigners travelling to the country to die.
As the report states, this reflects the decision by referendum last year in the Canton of Zürich, where the Swiss law regarding assisted suicide was overwhelmingly supported by the electorate, and the attempt by evangelical Christian organisations to quash the law by referendum failed dismally. Not only did the bid by the Christian Democrat party fail, the bid led to a powerful restatement of Swiss commitment to its end-of-life practices. Susanne Leutenegger-Oberholzer, member of the Social Democratic party, said:
The ability to determine what happens with our lives in our final months is considered very important in Switzerland. Ethical questions are of primary importance here. Lawmakers can’t do much good here. [my italics]
The distinction made in the words in italics is one which I had never seen made before, so it is worthwhile (to me at least) to spend a few moments discussing it. We will see a similar distinction being made in the context of laws governing abortion.
The point that “lawmakers can’t do much good here” is essentially saying that this is not a matter for lawmakers at all. It reminds me of the time that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, when running as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in the 1968 election said that “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” As Wikipedia records it:
Trudeau famously defended the decriminalization of homosexual acts segment of the bill by telling reporters that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”, adding that “what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code”.
Essentially, this is what Susanne Leutenegger-Oberholzer is saying about assisted suicide. It’s nobody’s business but the person whose choice it is to die. The law intervenes only in cases where the person assisting has something to gain by the person’s death.
In this connexion it is worthwhile reflecting on Canada’s abortion law, or, rather, the lack of one, and the reasons given by Supreme Court justices for striking down the law in 1988. Canada has had no law governing abortion since then. According to Wikipedia (under its entry for Henry Morgentaler, the man chiefly responsible for changing Canadian opinion regarding abortion), the five Supreme Court justices wrote three decisions, giving different reasons, for striking down the law. According to Justice Brian Dickson:
Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of her security of the person. [my italics]
Take careful note of the words in italics, for they are immediately, and without substantial change, applicable to those seeking assistance to die.
A very similar conclusion — not obviously different from Dickson’s — is expressed by the judgement written by Justice Bertha Wilson:
The decision of a woman to terminate her pregnancy falls within the class of protected decisions [because it will have] profound psychological, economic and social consequences for the pregnant woman… The right to reproduce or not to reproduce… is properly perceived as an integral part of modern woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being… The purpose of [section 251] is to take the decision away from the woman and give it to a committee. [my italics]
Notice, once again, the words in italics. The Roman Catholic Church tends to regard dignity and worth as something that is intrinsic to the human person, and opposes assisted dying on precisely those grounds, for it is, from the church’s point of view, a violation of that intrinsic dignity. However, this statement thinks of dignity in a very different way, as something that pertains to the person’s decisions and life plans and projects, something that can be asserted, or even illegitimately frustrated by the actions of others. This, it seems to me, despite claims recently made about what Steven Pinker calls “the stupidity of dignity,” catches the right note regarding dignity. We may want to say that the life of a person has intrinsic value, if we like, but dignity itself is something the possession of which needs defence, and the violation of which needs justification. Persons have dignity, not because they are persons, but because they have plans and projects, hopes and fears — because, in short, they have a life project to unfold. People may lose dignity, because of their failure to show due care in living good lives. Kant believed that a person could lose dignity by attempting suicide, but, while this can be shown to be wrong, I believe, even on Kant’s terms, he was right to think of dignity as something that can be lost. People may lose dignity by being forced to live in ways that are contrary to their own sense of what constitutes, for them, a good life.
This is where Wilson’s “struggle to assert [one's] dignity and worth as a human being” comes in. Dignity is something that is displayed in the course of living one’s life, by the way in which one lives it. This is important in relation to a question raised by Chris Selley, in an op-ed piece in the National Post this morning entitled “What is so outrageous about debating abortion? ” The problem is that he just doesn’t get it. What is so outrageous about debating abortion is that it is debating whether what “is properly perceived as an integral part of a [person's] struggle to assert [their] dignity and worth as a human being” should be open to debate in Parliament. Just because someone is so-called “pro-life” does not give them a right to make decisions which properly belong only to the persons concerned. These are moral decisions for individuals to make, not for parliaments or legislators to decide.
The vote in the House of Commons handily defeated the motion to establish a committee to decide when personhood begins. According to LifeSiteNews, the rabidly pro-life website, the private members bill M312, put by Stephen Woodworth, contrary to the wishes of the Prime Minister Stephen Harper,
proposes to re-examine section 223 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which stipulates that a child only becomes a human being once he or she has fully proceeded from the womb. The committee would [have been] charged with examining the medical evidence with a view to assessing the humanity of the unborn child.
Of course, the matter is put in a deliberately misleading way, for it simply assumes that before birth there is a child, and therefore, for the purposes of law, a human person. The question, put by people like Morgentaler and the Swiss parliamentarian Susanne Leutenegger-Oberholzer, is whether something which pertains so closely to the personal moral decision in terms of which a person defines his or her life can appropriately be a matter of law. This reflects immediately on the status of the foetus before birth.
In Canada, however, this question has become a political football, because, as John Ivison (also writing in the National Post) says, there seems, over this issue, to be a dispute within the Conservative Party over leadership. Jason Kenny, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, voted against the wishes of the Prime Minister, as did five other cabinet ministers. The reasons for doing so, according to John Ivison, may be related to jockeying for position in order to challenge the leadership at a later date. According to Ivison,
Jason Kenney, the Immigration Minister, supported the bill, despite the Prime Minister’s wish that his caucus follow the lead of his chief whip, Gordon O’Connor, who argued last spring that the House of Commons is not a laboratory and, therefore, not the appropriate venue to debate such a highly charged theological and philosophical issue. [my italics]
Notice how the italicised words closely parallel the concerns of Susanne Leutenegger-Oberholzer. Of course, Gordon O’Connor did not go so far as to speak about individual moral decisions, but what makes it “a highly charged theological and philosophical issue” is simply due to the fact that these matters concern the life choices that individuals make in asserting their individual dignity and worth. However, Jason Kenney is not concerned about such things. He is more concerned, it seems, to place himself in a good position to make a play for the leadership of the party, because, as Ivison reports:
As one Conservative MP said, anyone who wants to become leader has to have strong support in pro-life circles. “Among our motivated support base, pro-life support is very high and they choose leaders. Aspiring leaders have virtually no chance, if they are seen as pro-abortion,” he said.
Essentially what the new Conservative Party has is the kind of rift which exists in the Republican Party south of the border, with evangelical Christians (which formed the core of the old Reform and Canadian Alliance parties which joined with the Progressive Conservatives to form the Conservative Party) on one side, and Red Tories on the other side. Given opinion in Canada, a political party advocating change in the status quo regarding abortion in Canada will not succeed. Stephen Harper knows this, but the Catholic ane evangelical zealots don’t care, which is why Jason Kenney defied the Prime Minister and voted with his Catholic conscience, and not in terms that can be reasonably supported by secular reason. Christians do not mind imposing their religious values on those who do not share them.
Whether the Swiss attitude, and, in particular, the philosophical attitude of Susanne Leutenegger-Oberholzer regarding assisted dying, will prevail in Canada, only time will tell, but I think there is sufficient momentum now that will enable the establishment in Canada of a law governing assisted dying, despite the spoiling attacks of the religious zealots. The soundest basis for such a law is not, as is so often claimed about assisted dying, the insufferable pain that some patients experience as they are dying, but the more general consideration regarding when the judgement of individuals whether or not dying or continuing to live with what, in their view, is the burden of intolerable suffering — not just pain — is at issue, and whether that is a decision that should come within the scope of a person’s free moral decision. Considering the plight of people like Tony Nicklinson, terminal illness is not the issue. What is at issue is the dignity of the human person, and the right of individuals to make decisions regarding the dignity and worth of their own lives, when life has become for them, and in accordance with their own free decision, no longer worth living. Any other basis for an assisted dying law will inevitably violate the rights of people like Tony Nicklinson, Daniel James, or my own wife Elizabeth MacDonald, to end their lives on their own terms without the intervention of the law.