One cannot but have the greatest sympathy for Nancy B, the 25 year-old quadriplegic in a Quebec City hospital, who is paralyzed from the neck down due to Guillian-Barré syndrome. Yet her request to be allowed to die by unplugging her respirator cannot but fill us with sadness, sadness for her and sadness for us. For her, because she lacks the will to live. For us, because in a pro-death society we need more heroes who treasure life as a gift.
Nancy does not see herself as another Terry Fox fighting to the last breath to make the most of life. She is not like fellow quadriplegics Theresa Ducharme, 45, of Winnipeg – who has described her battle for life in her autobiography Life and Breath – or like Judith Snow, who appealed to her on the CBC to continue her struggle for life (see front page). Both tell Nancy that she may still have many years to live if only she has the will. And, indeed, her syndrome, unlike a terminal disease, allows for many more years of life, possibly even of recovery.
Perhaps Nancy didn’t know about them of others like them. Perhaps, too, she has been in an environment where nobody has told her about the gift of suffering sometimes bestowed by the Lord upon those most dear to Him. Some of us have been praying that this grace might still be given her.
Meanwhile she has attempted suicide twice and now her wish to die has been granted by the courts.
As Toronto Star columnist Frank Jones wrote, “Justice Jaques Dufour has done the rest of us no favour; he has taken us on another long and dangerous step down the road toward a society where human life is weighed and measured like a bushel of apples – and discarded where the quality doesn’t measure up.”
Canadian law and Canadian magistrates can no longer e relied upon in matters of life and death. It has been that way since 1969 when the Minister of Justice and parliament decided that Canada should set aside the fifth commandment and decree the death of pre-born babies.
That leaves two other parties: the health professionals and the patient.
The health professionals are sworn to “help the sick…and abstain from all intentional harm” (Hippocratic Oath) and may not assist someone to take his or her own life. But is granting Nancy’s wish assisted suicide, active euthanasia or outright murder?
For Christians the ruling moral principles applicable to Nancy are founded on the knowledge that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and we are made in the image of God. Therefore
1) A patient is obliged to use ordinary means to protect his or her health.
2) A patient has the right to refuse extraordinary means of treatment.
By euthanasia is understood
“an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated. Euthanasia’s terms of reference, therefore, are to be found in the intention of the will and the methods used.”
(Declaration on euthanasia, Vatican, 1980)
Nancy has indicated she wants to die. Her intention therefore is known.
As for methods, the same document, speaking of artificial prolongation of life, states that patients are obliged
“to use such measures when, in the language of …medical science, they can be called ordinary means; provided of course that they offer reasonable hope of benefit to the patient and that their use does not involve excessive inconvenience or suffering, or even inordinate expenses…”
Is there hope of benefit? It would seem there is. Is there excessive suffering? Some people think there is, yet there is no way for us knowing. There is no evidence for it. Ducharme and Snow believe it to be bearable and think their lives are worth living.
Consequently we are forced to conclude that Nancy’s decision was the wrong one.