Bulka: Assisted-dying debate not just about religious values, but universal ones

Published in the Ottawa Citizen on May 4th, 2016. Click here to read the article on their site.

As we wade deeper into the turbulent waters of physician-assisted death, the issue of any religion imposing its values on Canada becomes more contentious.

Personally, I agonize over this. Yet how can one remain silent on this critical matter? There are universal values shared by most religions that would be irresponsible not to share.

These values, it can be argued, are not “right because God said them.” Instead, God said them because they are right. This nuance makes a world of difference. Take the obligation to be charitable. It is the right thing to give charity, and therefore easy to understand why God asks us to be generous.  

Sanctity of life, adhering scrupulously to the Biblical societal command  “You shall not murder” is another such norm. In classical Jewish law, no one has the “right” to actively take their life. Suicide is seen as the murder of one’s own self, a unique instance wherein perpetrator and victim are one and the same. Nevertheless, in Jewish law people retain the right to refuse treatment, a right obviously not encouraged but also not denied.

Parts of this general position do not coalesce with Canadian consensus, yet I share with you my concerns about this matter, imbued with traditional Jewish values, deeply rooted religious values, but approaching it as a Canadian, and addressing those of different faith persuasions, including those who are persuaded to the disbelief in God.

The proposed bill, C-14, will probably generate a mere trickle of actual cases, but simultaneously opens up the floodgates of social change. What is being contemplated runs diametrically contrary to the age-old and hallowed objective of physicians, to save and enhance life. Asking physicians to be involved in terminating life will surely attenuate the medical reflex to save. Not tomorrow, but slowly, into the next generation of doctors, the passionate dedication to life-saving is sure to erode.

The implications on the psyche of physicians are enormous. With termination as part of the new medical vocabulary, medical practitioners will have their determination compromised. Naturally, patients will wonder whether their doctors are fully dedicated to their survival.

By acceding to the rights of some, we are almost unavoidably removing the right of the overwhelming majority of Canadians to worry-free health care, free from the anxiety about how committed their health care providers are to their desire to live. Does that mean people will be forced to suffer? Not at all. No one has the right to impose suffering on others. A proper, pan-Canadian palliative care system can properly and completely address all sorts of pain. Palliative care does not remove a right; instead it opens up another, more embracing and respectful way to alleviate suffering.       

There are other concerns, including the impact this change can have on behaviour. Will this engender a shift in attitude, from fighting through pain to taking the available escape? Our country is filled with people who went through harrowing times, on the brink of giving up, who are today grateful they did not take that step, a step from which there is no second chance. Again, this will not happen overnight, but the seeds will have been planted for a more resigned approach to life’s challenges, leading to many missed fulfilments and true achievements.

Whatever one’s belief, this is not welcome. It is not good for health care, not good for doctors and patients, not good for our approach to life, not good for strengthening our resolve to overcome challenges rather than giving up.

Reverence for life and awe of its sanctity have defined us. The passion to save, the inexhaustible energy to treat, the infinite capacity to care to the last natural breath, these are universal values, Canadian values, which are religiously imbued but also stand on their own. These are values the right to which we deny to our peril.  

Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka, C.M., is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and Board Chair, Trillium Gift of Life Network.