Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Where are the churches on euthanasia?

By James Schadenberg

Churchill Park United Church
Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has written about situations where Canadian churches are promoting euthanasia (MAiD) such as when Churchill Park United Church in Winnipeg Manitoba hosted the euthanasia death of an 86-year-old woman in March 2022 (Link). Recently, EPC sponsored a petition against a pro-euthanasia prayer promoted by the United Church of Canada. If you have not done so already, please consider signing the petition:

On February 27, Plough Quarterly published an article by Benjamin Crosby titled Where Are the Churches in Canada’s Euthanasia Experiment? Crosby’s article gives a good look at where the leaders of various Christian denominations stand regarding MAiD in Canada and shines a light on which denominations opposed euthanasia legislation, which ones actively supported it, and which ones refuse to speak clearly on the topic.

Crosby begins the article by discussing the state of the Anglican Church of Canada, where he serves as a priest. Archbishop Linda Nicholls, the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, has recently urged Anglicans to avoid opposing MAiD expansion, but to instead “focus on providing pastoral care to people who are considering medical assistance in dying”: As Crosby writes:

“Church should not oppose MAID law, primate says.” So reads a recent headline of the Anglican Journal, the newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada. In the piece, Archbishop Linda Nicholls calls for the church she leads to avoid publicly opposing the expansion of euthanasia, or medical assistance in dying (MAID), in Canada. “The mood in Canada” is not “to consider what churches have to say about this,” she says, warning against “imposing Christian values.” Far better for the church to “focus on providing pastoral care to people who are considering medical assistance in dying,” the article paraphrases her as saying, “ensuring they have the support they need to make decisions based on the value of their life.”

The value of their lives is just what many fear would not be protected by the widespread adoption of euthanasia, so rapid and sweeping that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has raised concerns. Meanwhile, Archbishop Nicholls, the leader of one of Canada’s largest and historically most influential Christian denominations, is arguing that on an issue of profound moral gravity, the church lacks the capacity and will to say anything to the public as a whole, or indeed even to offer definitive guidance to its own members. The most the church will do is solicit essays for a new collection of theological reflections on MAID and put out an editorial by Archbishop Nicholls expressing “concern” about potential further MAID expansion while emphasizing the church’s role as a nonjudgmental provider of pastoral care. In this refusal to speak plainly, the church in which I serve is sadly not alone.

Crosby gives a summary of the history of the legalization and expansion of MAiD in Canada. After this, Crosby discusses how MAiD advocates frame the issues of disability, dying, and MAiD. He takes issue with how they frame MAiD as non-threatening and gentle while framing disability and dying as a way of living that is lacking in dignity. 

Meanwhile, an entire infrastructure has sprung up around MAID, which euphemizes the procedure as gentle and nonthreatening. Thus you can find “death doulas” who work with MAID patients and their families and friends, counseling those about to die to dress warmly and hydrate before their deaths and encouraging the bereaved to process the experience through grounding themselves in their bodies or expressing themselves through dance. What is actually going on – a doctor killing a patient – is cloaked in anesthetizing therapeutic language, presumably to make the experience more pleasant for everyone involved.

In sharp contrast to this gentle language that seeks to make death seem not so very terrible, proponents of MAID expansion use rather grimmer language to talk about the lives of the disabled and dying. They talk about experiences of dependence, diapers, or drooling as evidence of a life lacking in dignity – and thus a life that should be allowed to be ended by doctor-delivered death. It is not a stretch to see why disabled advocates have argued that the expansion of MAID sends the message that “simply having a disability is reason enough for us to want to die,” that life with a disability is necessarily a life unworthy of being lived. Their fears are already coming to pass.

In 2021, the first year the “reasonably foreseeable natural death” criterion was lifted, more than two hundred Canadians who did not have a terminal illness ended their lives with MAID. This group was younger and more likely to use disability services than those with foreseeable deaths. Many reports have emerged of people pursuing MAID because they cannot access the support services they need to live a decent life or because they are pressured to do so by their medical providers. 

Crosby details some of the stories from the past year about people choosing death by MAiD because they couldn’t get the support they needed to live. Though MAiD advocates present MAiD as non-threatening, these stories show us a disturbing point, which is that MAiD in Canada is often used, and sometimes even presented, as a “solution” to disability and poverty. Despite this, the government still hopes to expand MAiD to include “mature minors” and by advanced directives. 

Crosby then goes to the main point of his article. Many mainline Protestant churches in Canada refuse to confront MAiD itself as a moral issue, instead choosing to provide value-neutral “pastoral care”. This, Crosby argues, is not actually a neutral position, because it supports the framing of MAiD advocates that human dignity is bound up in choice and independence:

To their great shame, Canadian mainline Protestants, the historic bastions of public Christianity in Anglophone Canada, have utterly failed to speak prophetically to the broader Canadian society or even coherently to their own members since the passing of MAID legislation in 2016. While many of these church bodies opposed euthanasia before its legalization, since then they have consistently avoided taking strong positions on it, essentially conceding the Quebec doctors’ argument that MAID is at base a medical issue, not a religious one. They have largely embraced a role as providing value-neutral “pastoral care” in whatever end-of-life choices their people may make. But this sort of neutrality proves impossible to maintain. By abandoning their teaching authority, the churches end up supporting MAID advocates’ accounts of human dignity and worth as bound up in choice and independence – accounts that are contrary to Christian teaching and death-dealing to disabled people.

The Anglican Church of Canada used to express opposition to euthanasia. As Crosby writes:

These churches were not always so unwilling to take a stand. In 1996, the Faith and Witness Commission of the Canadian Council of Churches produced a statement critical of moves toward legalizing euthanasia, while admitting that this “convergence” was shared by “many member Churches” but not necessarily all. The Anglican Church of Canada produced a 1998 report called Care in Dying, arguing that “we believe that respect for persons would not be well served by a change in law and practice to enable a physician, family member, or any private citizen to take the life of another or assist in their suicide.” However, despite what appears to be a straightforward judgment, Care in Dying uses some carefully hedged language that anticipates the moves the Anglicans and other mainline denominations would make in years to come: the report describes itself as “a pastoral guideline rather than a policy statement,” inviting “thoughtful and prayerful engagement with the realities that people may face at the end of their lives rather than demanding obedience to closely defined teaching.” It is, unfortunately, precisely this nervousness about the church’s power to teach and expect (or even ask for) obedience that would come to define most later mainline engagement with euthanasia.

Editors note: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada and the Lutheran Church of Canada take different positions on euthanasia. The Lutheran Church of Canada opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Currently, the United Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) support MAiD, though the United Church has stated that they reject MAiD for mental illnesses. The Anglican Church of Canada tries to present itself as neutral on these matters of life and death:

Since 2016, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) have all accepted MAID with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The United Church, Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, produced a 2017 statement that “we are not opposed in principle to the legislation allowing assistance in dying” and that MAID “may be chosen as a faithful option in certain circumstances.” The ELCIC goes even further, declaring in its 2019 statement, “We affirm that everyone has the human right to assistance in dying,” assistance that explicitly includes euthanasia. Moreover, while the United Church released a follow-up statement in 2020 rejecting the expansion of MAID to those suffering solely from mental illness, as well as the practice of advance directives, the Lutherans instead expressed thanks that “fortunately” the federal government had promised to expand MAID in precisely these ways! After all, the Lutherans affirm that providing access to MAID is a means of “loving your neighbor,” somewhat bizarrely quoting as supporting evidence Luther’s explication of the fifth commandment that Christians must “neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbor, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Euthanasia, the ELCIC declares, is simply part of “a respectful treatment plan developed under difficult circumstances with the best interests and the desires of our neighbor in mind.”

The Anglicans chose silence. To be sure, they had their own report, a 2018 follow-up to Care and Dying called In Sure and Certain Hope – an odd name for a statement so lacking in certainty of any kind. Unlike the United Church and the Lutherans, the Anglicans are unwilling to affirm explicitly that MAID can in some circumstances be a faithful choice. This is not because of any grave moral qualms, but seemingly because even such an affirmation would be too explicit a moral judgment. The church, the report declares, has “become increasingly skeptical of our capacity to understand and interpret the work of God in the life of another person.” Any definitive judgment about the meaning of a person’s life is off limits to the church – rather, the church simply must “listen in the encounter between God and the patient.” The church’s job is to help the dying “continue to experience meaning, purpose and control over one’s life,” facilitating whatever decisions they wish to make and “be[ing] present.” While the report encourages caregivers to seek to “build bridges between the stories told by the parishioner and the stories/teachings of Christ,” certainly any authoritative pronouncement about the nature of life or death seems out of bounds.

The Presbyterian Church of Canada has consistently condemned euthanasia. As Crosby writes:

As the Presbyterian Church of Canada, the only mainline body that has maintained a consistent condemnation of euthanasia, stated in its 2017 statement on the topic, the catechesis about a valuable life from the broader Canadian culture is directly in opposition to Christian teaching. As the Presbyterians note,

We live in a culture enamoured with the closing lines of “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” “Invictus” is a stirring work of literature, but it decries any trust by God. As Reformed Christians, we profess a different heritage, powerfully stirring to our souls, that proclaims a complete and utter trust in God.

Crosby states that the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the ELCIC have made a serious lapse in judgment in their refusal to combat MAiD:    

In their refusal to combat the culture’s discipleship of their members, the United Church and the Anglican and Lutheran churches have abandoned both public witness to those outside the church and the exercise of the teaching office to those within it. Instead, in the name of nonjudgmental pastoral presence, the churches are choosing to baptize the same values that have led to MAID’s continued expansion and an ever-rising death count over the continued concerns of disability rights groups who rightly see the dignity and very lives of disabled persons under attack. Perhaps the most vivid image of the mainline churches’ capitulation is a MAID death being carried out in the sanctuary of a United Church in Manitoba, complete with the minister telling journalists that there was a “sense of ‘rightness’” in this woman’s killing.

Crosby concludes his article on an optimistic note. In Canada, evangelical, Pentecostal, confessional Protestant, Anabaptist, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox leaders, as well as Jewish and Muslim leaders, have spoken out against MAiD, and have worked to find common cause with non-religious groups. These groups have all professed that life has value and dignity, even if one has a disability, illness, or is dependent on others. Crosby writes:

There is much to despair about concerning the current Canadian experiment with euthanasia and the mainline churches’ surrender. But there are also reasons for hope. Roman Catholics, evangelicals, conservative confessional Protestants, and other Christian groups have continued to publicly oppose MAID expansion, joining other religious communities and disability rights advocates standing against an ideology that sees independence as a necessary aspect of human dignity or a good human life. These groups witness in a Canadian context that dependence, far from being an unusual state to be shunned at all costs (even one’s death!), is an inevitable and indeed good part of the human condition.

One of the most visible examples of Christians standing against MAID is in the 2020 open letter “We Can and Must Do Much Better,” in which evangelical, Pentecostal, confessional Protestant, Anabaptist, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox leaders joined Jewish and Muslim leaders in decrying MAID’s expansion. The letter also offered an alternative vision of how Canadians might respond to the situations of profound suffering which may lead people to choose MAID, not least through expanding access to palliative care as an alternative to euthanasia. In short, the letter is a call to solidarity: “Rather than withdrawing from those who are not far from leaving us, we must embrace them even more tightly, helping them to find meaning up to the last moments of life.”

These churches have also worked to find common cause with nonreligious groups that have similarly opposed MAID expansion, especially the disability rights community. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s response focused on the particular harm MAID might do to the disability community and echoed the language of disability advocates in declaring that “in Canada, it shouldn’t be easier to have help in ending your life than to get the support and care you need to live.” Christian and disability rights organizations alike have been weighing in on Canada’s current study about expanding MAID to mature minors and allowing it via advance directive.

Further reading:


Unknown said...

Lutheran Church Canada's pastors, its 300 congregations and members believe Euthanasia is wrong. Our Church's fifth value statement is “We value life as a gift of God to be cherished, nurtured, and protected from conception to natural death.” We believe "that the worth and merit of life are not determined by anything in us—not physical appearance, mental capacity, bodily abilities, occupation, gender, ethnicity, age, or quality of life. Instead, God’s fatherly, divine goodness and mercy alone give human life its worth and value." ELCIC is not the only group of Lutheran Churches in Canada and their stance on MAiD is not representative of all Lutherans or Lutheran Churches in Canada. If you would like to read about the Lutheran Church Canada's position on the Sanctity of life please see the website link below

Unknown said...

The Anglican Network in Canada, a distinct entity from the Anglican Church of Canada, also opposes euthanasia, thanks be to God. Nancy Craig

Sara Buscher said...

Churches not actively opposing euthanasia are more concerned with protecting their bureaucracies than they are with being moral leaders. Shame on them.

Anonymous said...

Re Linda Nicholls: you can't expect too much from a "primate".

Vi said...

Exactly, Sara Buscher. :( Yikes!

Anonymous said...

Rev. Glenn Shewchuk, pastor at Chateauguay Community Church near Montreal wrote a thesis opposing MAID.
It is found at

Vi said...

Lol!Right, Anonymous?!

Civil engineer said...

Most of the (conservative) Calvinist denominations - particularly those started by post-WWII immigrants, oppose MAiD, and have done so since it raised its ugly head in the Netherlands before even known in Canada.