God Confirmed Missing in Canadian Public Discourse: The Assisted-Suicide Debate

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As Canada begins a new era of officially sanctioned, physician-assisted suicide, one is struck by the almost complete absence of a phrase that, only a generation ago, would have figured largely in the debate: “playing God.”

The traditional argument against suicide in Christianity, Canada’s majority religion since well before Confederation, is one echoed in Jewish and Islamic traditions, of course, as well as in other religions that feature a personal deity involved in human affairs—namely, that God alone can decide when one’s life is properly over.

Life is the gift of God, and none of us can say for sure when our life’s work, our life’s usefulness under divine providence, is done. Even comatose patients influence people around them: medical staff, family members, friends, visitors, and more. Who can say for certain when one’s time to leave has come?


Or so Canadians used to believe.

As MPs and senators have debated the issues in Parliament while other politicians, physicians, and pundits have debated them in the press, what one expected to hear was one side accusing the other of arrogance in deciding when life should end—even one’s own life. But who nowadays accuses anyone else of “playing God”?

It’s not as if Canadians don’t believe in God—or, as the surveys often put it, a “higher power.” According to an Angus Reid poll conducted just last year, almost three-quarters of Canadians, 73 per cent, said that they believe in some kind of Supreme Being.

Yet in this momentous debate, almost no one is referring to a deity. Everyone instead is “functionally atheistic,” as the sociologists say, conducting the conversation under the low sky of the secular.

The issues are confined to these: the scope and nature of the human rights involved (the entire purview, it seems, of the Supreme Court in its unanimous ruling last year that assisted suicide should be legal); legal protection of those who will assist in death; and conscience rights for those health-care professionals who would rather not use their skills to hasten a patient’s demise.

What few are noting publicly (I have found precisely one: Prof. Douglas Farrow of McGill) is that the preamble to Canada’s Constitution features “the supremacy of God,” and yet that phrase is apparently an utterly dead letter in political discussion.

My point here is that belief in God’s sovereignty also seems to be a belief with little purchase on most Canadians’ consideration of these matters.

Yet if discussion of any issue ought to include references to “the supremacy of God,” surely whether and when we ought to terminate life would be that issue.

There are plausible reasons to consider assisted suicide for the terminally ill and badly suffering. There are plausible reasons to resist assisted suicide as opening the door to a broad range of evils.

What isn’t apparently any longer a very Canadian thing to say is that we shouldn’t be talking about this issue at all: the matter of when death ought to arrive should be left in God’s hands, the hands in which three-quarters of us say we believe.

Except when we evidently don’t.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).