Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When faith and euthanasia collide

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FOUR years ago, as my dad lay unconscious and dying in his assisted-living bedroom, medical staff at the facility asked if I would be OK with them giving him doses of morphine to ease his suffering.

A day earlier, he had slipped into a coma. Now he lay silent, not moving except for his chest, which heaved laboriously as he tried to breathe.

I readily consented to the request. Who wouldn't? It hurt to see him in such distress, especially since there was no hope of his ever wakening.

After receiving the morphine, his breathing grew easier. He settled down. He seemed at peace.

I was glad for him. But in my heart I knew -- as I'm sure the medical staff knew -- what was really at play here: We were assisting my dad to die by administering the drug. Which he did, early the next morning, slipping quietly away while I held his hand and cradled his head.

Was that physician-assisted suicide? Some would say yes, that it's just a covert form of euthanasia. Others, like Dr. Brent Kvern, a professor of family medicine at the University of Manitoba, say no.

"It's a question of intent," he says. "The intent of administering the morphine is to ease suffering. The side effect may be to shorten life."

This is different, he says, from administering a drug of any kind to "end life in order to ease suffering."

Kvern will be presenting some thoughts about this controversial and much-debated topic on Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m. at Multifaith Voices on Physician-Assisted Suicide.

The event, sponsored by the Manitoba Multifaith Council, will be held at St. Marks Lutheran Church, 600 Cambridge St.

Kvern will kick off the evening by presenting a composite case based on his own experience, and the experiences of other doctors. Put yourself in the place of a doctor: What would you say to patient with Lou Gehrig's disease -- a terrible, terminal illness -- who wants to end his life?

Coming up with an answer to that question will be the task of presenters Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, Sheikh Hosni Azzabi, Imam of the Manitoba Islamic Centre, Barry Hammond of the Canadian Humanist Association, Rev. Lynn Granke, manager of spiritual care at Victoria General Hospital and Dr. George Webster, clinical ethicist at St. Boniface Hospital.

What would be your answer? If you are religious, the answer has traditionally been a clear no -- euthanasia is forbidden. The Roman Catholic Church, Protestants of many kinds, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others agree that life is sacred, and nobody should assist it to end.

Today, however, many Canadians disagree. The recent court ruling in B.C. may have upheld the ban on physician-assisted suicide, but 68 per cent of Canadians say those who help seriously ill people to commit suicide should not be charged with a crime.

The poll, conducted by the Environics Institute, also found almost 70 per cent of respondents are in favour of euthanasia more generally.

The poll found majority support for euthanasia among every age group and in every region of Canada. The highest support was in Quebec and B.C., at 79 per cent. The lowest, at 62 per cent, was in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The poll also found older Canadians were more likely to support the practice than younger people -- perhaps not surprising, since older people are closer to the time when that kind of decision needs to be made.

Many of us, religious or not, find ourselves caught in the middle of this debate. On the one hand, we believe life should be preserved and supported. On the other, we don't want to see loved ones suffer -- or contemplate our own suffering as we grow older. We wonder if physician-assisted suicide isn't a caring response.

Before he died, my dad frequently expressed the wish that his life could end. He wasn't suffering like someone with a terminal illness, but at the age of 86 he had lost interest in living. A widower, he was lonely, tired, often sick, required the use of a wheelchair, could no longer read and enjoy his books, had trouble swallowing and sometimes was in pain.

He was ready to die; every night, he told me, he prayed he would not wake up in the morning.

One day, his prayer came true. But was that the best way? Or should we, as a society, have offered him another option?

The evening presentation at St. Marks Lutheran Church promises to be an interesting, lively and challenging discussion.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 D15

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