End of life—and the end of an era?

We are approaching an inflection point. In geometry, an inflection point is where a curve starts to change its shape—say, from curving upward to curving downward. The last fifty years feels like a steady series of inflection points in our culture, and we’re about to hit another one.

After more than four weeks of hearings, the case of Truchon and Gladu v. the Attorneys General of Canada and Quebec finally came to an end in Montreal last month. It is the latest challenge to the law regarding medical aid in dying (MAID) as Jean Truchon and Nicole Gladu seek the freedom to receive MAID long before they meet the current criteria of the provincial law, which requires that they be at “the end of life,” and of the federal law, which requires that their imminent natural death be “reasonably foreseeable.”

The governments of Quebec and of Canada are trying to hold the line against the expansion of MAID. Governments throughout the western world have been worrying about the rising incidence of suicide, and lawyer Robert Reynolds recently summarized their concern as expressed in this case:

“Experts presented by the federal government argued that if the end of life requirement were removed, many patients currently being treated by psychiatrists to prevent their suicide would become eligible for MAID and suicide rates would increase. This opinion was borne out by expert evidence from Holland, where there is no end of life requirement in the law. In the last ten years in Holland there has been a steady increase in the number of people being euthanized, and during that same period, suicide numbers in the general population have increased at a higher rate than those in neighbouring countries such as Germany.”

Reynolds, a former president of the Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF), argued on CLF’s behalf that “this case represented a clash of values or ideologies: on the one hand, the autonomy of the individual, or self-determination, and on the other hand, the sacred character of human life.” And ay, there’s the rub.

The “sacredness” or “sanctity” of life derives from the concept of being “holy” (Latin sanctus), which means “to be set apart to God.” To begin or end a human life, so Christians (and other believers in a Supreme Being) have maintained, is the purview of God.

We would warn each other not to “play God.” We would search the Scriptures to ascertain what human responsibilities are in such matters—contraception and abortion at one end of life and capital punishment, war, and euthanasia at the other—and what must be left to the divine prerogative.

But what now? Since the Sixties, Canadian culture, like many others, has tilted increasingly toward individualism—away from communal values and community rights, yes, but also away from “the supremacy of God,” despite what it says in the Preamble to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As the cultural tide of Christian influence continues to ebb in the Canadian mind, likewise vanish the grounds to see life as anything other than the possession of each individual who enjoys it—as his or her private property to be retained or rejected at will.

The Dutch pastor and politician Abraham Kuyper (d. 1920) anticipated this situation. He warned that in a truly pluralistic society, a society in which various citizens maintained very different worldviews, the best we could do is to discuss and debate, and then vote. He knew that, at least in some cases, we could not hope to get everyone to agree because some people saw the world so differently than their neighbours did.

This is the coming inflection point—the time in which we Christians give up even implicitly counting on a cultural consensus on the sacredness of life. When large numbers of Canadians don’t believe in a God who created human beings with a dignity such that no life could be ended without the gravest of divine permissions, but instead believe that human life is merely a condition that each person can enjoy just as much as he or she wants to—then we can only discuss and debate, and then vote.

The outcome of Truchon and Gladu’s case might tell us whether that point has finally come.

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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).