When death is near

Religions offer their perspective on assisted suicide


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Earlier this year, Susan Griffiths decided to end her life.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/12/2013 (3146 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Earlier this year, Susan Griffiths decided to end her life.

Diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, and facing a slow, painful death, the 72-year-old Winnipegger elected to fly to Switzerland last April to take advantage of that country’s assisted suicide law.

She was not alone in putting the national spotlight on euthanasia this year. In September, Donald Low, a high-ranking medical official in Ontario, released a video shortly after his death urging the Canadian government to legalize euthanasia.

Liz O. Baylen / McClatchy-Tribune files

In Quebec, the government introduced a bill to allow physicians to help assist individuals to die in certain circumstances.

And in October, an Environics Institute poll showed 70 per cent of Canadians (62 per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba) supported euthanasia, and 68 per cent believe those who help the seriously ill commit suicide should not face legal charges.

No doubt for Griffiths, there were many things she needed to consider when making the decision, including the reaction of family and friends.

But as a self-described atheist who didn’t believe in the afterlife, one thing Griffiths didn’t have to worry about were the teachings of a religious group when it came to physician-assisted suicide.

For the over 40 per cent of Canadians who say religion is important in their lives, that’s not an option. When deciding if or how to end their lives, they will need to consider the views of their faith on the subject.

When it comes to human life, all of the world’s religions are unanimous: They believe it is sacred. Some leave room for allowing people to die when all medical options are exhausted, but none promote euthanasia.

Religious groups oppose euthanasia for a number of reasons: They believe God forbids it. Their scriptures and traditions teach against it. And they believe that those who are vulnerable due to illness or disability deserve special care and protection. The taking of life, even if it is done to reduce suffering, is not permitted.

That’s all well and good for those who are religious. What about those who aren’t? They also need to pay attention; any call to relax the law against physician-assisted suicide will find many religious groups calling on their followers to lobby against it. Already the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are campaigning against any changes to the law.

There is a time for everything, says the writer of the ancient book of Ecclesiastes. This includes a time to be born and a time to die. Whether Canadians facing terminal illness can end their own lives is a hot topic today, for religious and non-religious people alike. The Free Press asked five people from different religious groups to share their perspectives on this important issue.

— John Longhurst

By Lynn Granke

As a Christian, I begin with the beginning of creation in the book of Genesis where we hear the story of the creation of human beings in the image of God who are then placed in human community to share life together, to offer support and to love and forgive.

I value deeply the understanding that we bear the image of God within us and in the relationships we share. “Created in the image of God,” means life is sacred and to be lived and cared for with reverence and respect.

At the same time, our humanity infers finitude and mortality. Living in western culture, it seems the only image that matters is to be young and attractive — at least that’s the message we seem to get from advertising, marketing and the media.

We are told to “stand on our own two feet.” We are encouraged to take charge, be independent and be a “self- made” man or woman. The possibility of depending on others for assistance frightens us.

In this environment, it is no surprise we seek control over our death. Is assisted death an act of defiance in the very face of mortality? Is it an act of defiance when we are fearful?

Western culture often defines humanness as our capacity to think, our worth based on our intellectual ability. Surely being human also includes our spirituality, emotions, experiences and relationships.

We often live as if we are infinite rather than mortal; valuing autonomy without recognizing or valuing that we are grounded in community. When our highest ethical value is autonomy, one must wonder what the cost to community is. Can we explore the relationship between autonomy and community?

In our discussion of assisted death, it is crucial that we also consider how my request of another to aid me in dying affects their autonomy, their personhood.

Working in spiritual care, I meet with patients and their families who face the sorrow and challenges of chronic illness and aging. Some of these patients wish to die. Some have asked for assisted suicide (a misnomer at best; assisted death is more applicable). Some have tried to die by suicide.

Loss of independence and fear of what lies ahead often appear to be at the source. In meeting with the families who survive a completed suicide, my pastoral or caring response is to want to spare the family this enormous pain. An assisted death where the family of the person who is choosing the time and place of their own death, where they can be accompanied and loved, seems less traumatic.

Yet the question remains for me: Is autonomy the highest good? If so, then assisted death is a logical step. If we value community, might we consider how the community can support the person who feels burdened by illness or aging? Are we as a society prepared to provide financial resources for palliative care and community supports for those living with chronic illness in order to support the dignity of all no matter what phase of life they are in? Are we ready to discuss suffering, or as Christians name this, the theology of the cross? Might we consider illness or aging an invitation into our becoming more fully human?

Lynn Granke is manager, Spiritual Health Services, Victoria General Hospital.


By Fredrich Ulrich

Buddhism as an organized religion began some 2,600 years ago. The advanced technology we have today was unimaginable in those distant eras. We are thus faced with the problem of applying ancient wisdom to our actual lives as they are lived, here and now.

Buddhism starts with reverence for life. Our hope is to preserve and enrich life. The Dalai Lama recently shared his views on assisted suicide. He said it is better to avoid it. But he added that it is permissible in exceptional cases, such as when a person is in a coma with no possibility of recovery. He emphasized that it is best considered on a case-by-case basis.

Buddhists tend not to be dogmatic or dualistic. For that reason, there is no one absolutistic answer that we can use to micromanage every one of life’s situations. Each person is encouraged to reflect on their own situation in the framework of Buddhist practice. Whatever a person decides, they are never abandoned by the Buddha.

At the same time, the Buddhist values interdependence. For that reason every event — in this case assisted suicide — is a communal event involving more than just the individual person alone. Where the person is unable to make decisions, the family members, or legally appointed persons, have to make the decision.

In this context, we may reflect on the physician and legal advisers. Why is it assumed that assisted suicide would be downloaded solely to their professions? They are an important part of the event’s equation. We must not neglect their welfare in this discussion. The legal profession helped set up a do not resuscitate clause. Eventually they may also have to be included in any similar clause for physician-assisted suicide.

No one is exempt from humanity’s universally shared experience of death. Even love can’t keep us from dying, to be sure. But a relevant Buddhist spirituality helps us develop an inner strength, so even death can’t prevent us from loving. It is with this spiritual strength that we approach this difficult topic.

As Buddhists, we believe we should be given the opportunity to manage our own passing, keeping in mind the karmic impact of our actions, thoughts and words. It is the practice in our Buddhist traditions to live with an awareness of death and actively prepare for its eventuality. Right now it means thinking about the kind of funeral we want, as well of putting our legal affairs in order. Some people even write their own death poem. These actions are a kind of meditation on death, supported by ongoing spiritual practice and ritual. In the future, this may even involve legally developed plans for a possible physician-assisted suicide.

Fredrich Ulrich is sensei of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple.


By Sikander Hashmi

“Do not kill yourselves: for verily God is to you Most Merciful.” (Qur’an – 4:29)

It is commonly understood that when we were born, we had no choice but to become a citizen of this world. We didn’t get a chance to choose our parents or birthplace either. But if entering this world was not of our choosing, do we have the choice to decide when we leave it?

From an Islamic perspective, the answer to this question lies in understanding the purpose of our lives. The Qur’an states that God created life and death to “try you which of you is best in conduct.” (67:2) Our life, along with everything it brings, is a test, the beginning and end of which is God’s domain.

This test takes different forms for each individual. Some are blessed while others are less fortunate. Each individual faces difficulties of varying degrees, featuring different types of challenges. Yet, the rules of the test are the same: Exert patience when facing difficulties and be grateful for all of God’s favours upon you.

Ultimately, the Islamic belief is that God — who is the Most Compassionate and Most Just — will never try a person beyond their endurance. Any perceived injustice will be rectified in the afterlife. And since God is the Most Merciful and the Most Wise, Muslims believe that any pain and affliction endured patiently will bring blessings, rewards and forgiveness in the afterlife.

Muslims also believe that the time and place of death for each individual has been predetermined by God, as stated in the Qur’an. From the Islamic point of view, suicide is seen as encroaching upon God’s sole right to decide how, when and where one’s test is to end and the soul is to transition into the next life — a decision only God knows best about. That’s why the Qur’an states, “Do not kill yourselves: for verily God is to you Most Merciful.” (4:29).

Some may see death as a relief from ongoing suffering in some circumstances. In such cases, Prophetic guidance advises Muslims to make a qualified supplication: “O God, keep me alive as long as life is better for me and let me die if death is better for me.” Muslims believe that all supplications made to God will be answered, unless God has something better planned. This belief empowers Muslims to put their trust in God’s plans.

For a person or state institution to kill another person, even with the latter’s consent, is even more insidious than suicide. Life is sanctified and taking it only permissible in limited circumstances, as stated in the Qur’an. Assisted suicide, in this view, is classified as murder.

However, actively taking a life (or assisting in doing so) is not the same as letting nature run its course. For example, Islamic guidelines allow for life-support to be withheld and even withdrawn in cases where doctors agree the medical situation is hopeless. This leaves the decision for causing death up to God.

In other words, from an Islamic perspective, the act of euthanasia is unacceptable. Legalizing assisted suicide may seem like an acceptable solution to end suffering. It may even lessen the burden on the health-care system. Yet, this solution may very well end up bringing suffering to many others — one that may be so distressing and silent that its true extent may remain unknown for a very long time.


Sikander Hashmi is a freelance writer and an imam at the Islamic Society of Kingston in Kingston, Ont. He can be reached through his website at www.sikander.ca or on Twitter @kingstonimam.


By Pandit Atish

Hinduism is based on non-violence. Suicide — killing oneself — is an act of violence. Killing another person is also wrong. In Hindu scriptures, nowhere is it mentioned that one can assist someone who wishes to commit suicide. To do so would be to commit a violent act, which is against Hinduism. Life is created or given by God. We humans have no right to take it away even by assisting someone who wishes to commit suicide.

As Hindus, we believe that the soul comes from God. It’s like a drop of water in the ocean. If someone stands near the shore and takes a drop of water in his hand, it is just a drop of water. But if that drop of water is put back in the ocean, the drop merges with, and becomes a part of, the infinite ocean.

Hindus believe that our body is alive because the soul resides in the body. Once the soul leaves the body, the living body becomes a corpse. Forcing the soul to leave the body is considered killing, which contravenes the principle of non-violence.

As Hindus, we cannot condone taking away life bestowed by God. Whatever arguments we may bring in favour of assisted suicide, as Hindus we see it as killing, plain and simple. It should be abhorred, in order to prevent violence.

We are all part of God. God gives us life, and no person should try to take it away.

Pandit Atish Maniar is a retired medical microbiologist and a Hindu priest for the Hindu Society of Manitoba.


By Alan Green

To begin with, Judaism teaches that our lives belong to God. We are mere stewards of the body the Creator has given us. As Jews, we also believe we are commanded to preserve our lives. The book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:9 teaches that we should “carefully preserve (y)ourselves.”

For Jews, this means we are obligated to take good care of our bodies. This includes not hurting ourselves, and certainly not killing ourselves. The great medieval rabbi and physician Maimonides, wrote: “The rabbis prohibited many things, because they were a danger to life. Therefore, one who says, ‘I will endanger myself, and it’s of no business of yours,’ is to be whipped.”

At the same time that we are commanded to preserve our own lives, we are also commanded to save the lives of others. The Talmud refers to the teaching in Leviticus, Chapter 19:16: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour.” It goes on to say that the commandment to return lost property (Deuteronomy 22:1) also applies to the effort to restore lost health; if needed, we must engage with others to save them from danger.

Although there’s no obligation to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of another in Judaism, self-endangerment to save another life is permitted. Thus it’s permissible — and perhaps even required — to place oneself at risk in order to save a life.

So what does Jewish law say about the situation of a seriously ill patient who decides, with a doctor’s assistance, to end their life? Judaism is a religion that unabashedly promotes life. Deuteronomy Chapter 30:19-20 declares: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God; by obeying His voice; and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life, and the length of your days.”

Based on my understanding of this text, and Jewish tradition as a whole, I interpret this to mean that a human being is obligated to “choose life,” even in the face of severe illness and impending death. Therefore, in the Jewish system, physician-assisted suicide would be unacceptable under any imaginable circumstance.

With regard to the end of life, there is a wide array of opinions in Judaism, ranging from very conservative to very liberal. The conservative approach dictates that every possible medical intervention should be employed to preserve a life as long as possible. The liberal approach advocates withdrawal even of intravenous food and water from a comatose patient with no prospect of recovery, together with intravenous drugs, artificial respiration, and dialysis. And there are many opinions that fall between these two extremes.

But I think Judaism makes itself very clear: In some way, shape, or form, we are always obligated to choose life. Therefore, for Jews, the prospect of physician-assisted suicide — in which, by common agreement, a doctor would actively aid someone in ending their life — is completely outside the religious universe of discourse.

Alan Green is senior rabbi at Shaarey Zedek synagogue.


Updated on Saturday, December 28, 2013 10:29 AM CST: Added photo

Updated on Saturday, December 28, 2013 10:32 AM CST: Fixed photo credit

Updated on Saturday, December 28, 2013 10:42 AM CST: Fixed cutline

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