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The Right to Life Does Not Mean the Duty to Suffer

10/22/2014 01:02 EDT | Updated 12/22/2014 05:59 EST
Gary Waters via Getty Images

On October 15, a small group of brave people, including Unitarian Minister and spokesperson for Dying with Dignity Rev. Brian Kiely, gathered at Churchill Square in Edmonton. A recent poll showed that about 84 per cent of Canadians support dying with dignity.

They congregated on a day when the Supreme Court of Canada was revisiting the issue of the autonomy of mentally competent adults, experiencing unbearable suffering and whose terminal diagnosis was confirmed by at least two physicians and who have asked for assisted death on multiple occasions.

Rev. Kiely, who has been involved with this issue for about 25 years, has stated that it is quite ill informed and highly prejudicial to assert that such a hard decision as dying is made frivolously or on the spur of the moment.

Unitarian Chaplain at the University of Alberta, Rev. Audrey Brooks has asserted that as a palliative care Chaplain, see has witnessed deaths that she would not let a single pet of hers experience.

Toronto based Muslim and resident physician Dr. Amina Jabbar indicated that dying with dignity should be an option available to the terminally ill, where cure is not an option. She referred to the video by Dr. Donald Low in which he passionately stated in his final days that those who oppose dying with dignity would change their opinion if they could live in his body for 24 hours.

Dr. Jabbar also noted that modern advancements are allowed to tamper with the God appointed ajal (span) of human life in order to prolong quantity of life but not always maintain quality of life.

Is not this skewed emphasis on the quantity of life that extends the suffering of the terminally ill tantamount to inflicting harm?

Dr. Jabbar observed that dying with dignity is construed as giving up instead of fighting an internal aggressor and that such an approach is not consistent with the medical ethic, which can also be captured by the Prophet's teaching, "Do no harm and accept no harm."

Such Abrahamic believers, which includes Jews, Christians and Muslims, have an unorthodox but faithful view on dying with dignity. For them the slippery slope argument on active euthanasia is simply an unthinking defense of maintaining the status quo.

They view dying with dignity as returning to the Merciful Creator instead of ungratefully rejecting God's gift, as strength against an internal aggressor instead of cowardice, and as valuing being created b'tzelem elohim (in God's image) instead of preserving mere biological existence.

In the Conservative Jewish tradition, Rabbi Byron Sherwin has stated that "to avoid sufferings certain to result in death ... it is required to violate the injunctions against injuring oneself."

In the Reform tradition, Rabbi Peter Knobel questions that if we choose a quick and non-humiliating death for condemned criminals, "what, then, is our obligation to innocent life which is suffering terrible pain and humiliating death?"

In Christianity, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu recently penned an article asserting that Nelson Mandela's prolonged death was an affront and that dignified death is a right.

Likewise, retired Episcopalian Bishop Rev. John Shelby Spong has written, "My deepest desire is to always choose death with dignity over a life that has either become hopelessly painful and dysfunctional or empty and devoid of all meaning. That is the only way I know that would allow me to honor the God in whose image I was created."

In the Muslim tradition, the primary texts do not expressly address the issue of active euthanasia. Any ruling on the matter is deduced by qiyas (analogy) with suicide or murder.

Conservative Muslim leaders prohibit active euthanasia based on verse 4:29 that reads, 'Do not consume one another's wealth unjustly ... and do not kill yourselves, surely Allah is merciful to you'.

They believe that our bodies are an amana (trust) from God and that suffering is a test that brings one closer to Allah, absolves sins and earns one Paradise. For them the purpose of life is to submit to Allah and taking one's life amounts to disobedience that merits eternal hell fire.

However, Muslim exegetes like the 9th century Tabari and the 12th century Al Razi opined that verse 4:29 refers to intra-Muslim conflict. Al Razi also seemed to suggest that God does not impose needless suffering and would withhold eternal punishment from a person, who ends his life to terminate suffering and pain.

Some Muslims, who submit to the Most Merciful and Ever Compassionate God, refuse to view the Divine as a baniya (merchant dealer) who miserly trades Heaven and Hell for mindless subservience. Some quote a couplet from the 19th century Urdu poet Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, "Human beings were created to show empathy, For Angels were sufficient for subservience."

As such, they do not allow the fear of eternal Hellfire to let the terminally ill experience a slow and protracted death. Muslim Dr. Shabbir Ahmed quotes verse 17:33 that reads, "Do not kill the soul, which Allah has forbidden except for a just cause," to ask, "what can be a more just cause than relieving the persistent, intractable suffering of a dying human or animal?"

At times the prohibition on taking life becomes permission to allow torture. In such exceptional situations, instead of being a slave to legal rulings of our faith traditions, we can be mindful that the right to life does not become a duty to suffer.

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