Leaders of the Christian Reformed Church are urging members in Canada to respond to a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down the law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. In a letter to the churches, members were asked to contact their Members of Parliament and their provincial representatives, encouraging them to craft new legislation that emphasizes palliative care, including aggressive pain management, but that also strongly protects vulnerable people, including those with disabilities.
The letter was signed by Darren Roorda, director of Canadian ministries; Peter Vandermeulen, director of the Office of Social Justice; Mark Stephenson, director of Disability Concerns; and Mike Hogeterp, director of the CRC's Centre for Public Dialogue.
The letter noted with particular concern that the court's judgment uses the term “grievous and irremediable medical condition” rather than “terminal illness,” potentially meaning that persons with a serious disability could access assisted suicide, a degree of permissiveness that, the letter stated, does not exist anywhere else in the world.
The Supreme Court has given lawmakers one year to draft new legislation. If new legislation is not in place by then, there will be no law at all. That would put Canada into a similar situation as it is regarding abortion: no law and no restrictions on physician assisted suicide in the circumstances defined by the court ruling. So the authors are urging CRC members to respond quickly with constructive input rather than a heated response.
“We are greatly concerned by this new and mandatory legal reality, but this is also an opportunity to craft real life-affirming legislation,” the letter stated. “We do not believe that a heated reaction will be effective or helpful.”
Hogeterp said the church's reaction is informed by the abortion debate in Canada 25 years ago. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court also struck down existing legislation, with an expectation that there would be new legislation. The Christian community was widely divided between those who were willing to make some concessions to have legislation that would provide some limitations and those wanting an outright ban. Hogeterp said that parliamentarians working at that time have often told the story that some of the most venomous letters they received in their careers came on the abortion issue and particularly from Christians. “The results of this ‘all or nothing’ debate are a deeply troubling legal vacuum on abortion and a heritage of toxic debate,” said Hogeterp.
Hogeterp said he accepts that in the CRC the concerns will be wide and varied and that some will prefer a stronger response. “In a diverse democracy like Canada, there are great risks in insisting on an 'all or nothing' position on euthanasia,” he said, “and strident or venomous language is not respectful and does not contribute to a dialogue that lays out viable legal options to promote life-enhancing legislation, protection of the vulnerable, or the conscience rights of medical practitioners.”
The Christian Reformed Church has no official position statement on euthanasia. However, it has addressed the issue. In the late 1990s, the Centre for Public Dialogue (then known as the Committee for Contact with the Government) wrote a report on end of life issues. Synod 2000 (the annual leadership meeting of the CRC) subsequently received that report and adopted a resolution urging churches to encourage government allocation of funding for adequate palliative services; encourage government initiatives that allow medical treatment aimed at pain relief even if that treatment may unintentionally shorten life; and encourage government initiatives that promote life-affirming legislation and oppose legislation that endorses assisted suicide or mercy killing.
The authors of the letter are referring church members to that resolution to help them engage with lawmakers proactively and constructively.
In addition to the letter to the churches, Roorda and John Kapteyn, executive secretary of the Reformed Church in America's regional synod of Canada, wrote to the leaders of Canada's four political parties, urging them to “collaborate deeply and consult widely,” while assuring them that their church communities are committed to “providing constructive and respectful contributions to this important dialogue.”