Guest post by Stuart Chambers
In a recent op-ed, Dr. Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka asserts that acceptance of medical assistance in dying (MAID) leads to societal breakdown. In fact, Rabbi Bulka fears that Canadian society will collapse if it fails to enforce a communally driven moral code, preferably one imbued with religious values. However, Bulka’s concerns over MAID simply represent a recycled version of the disintegration thesis, which persists on four fronts.
First, Bulka employs an ecological version of the disintegration thesis in which one mourns the passing of a distinctive way of living. Since Bulka supports the premise that all human life is sacred at every stage, biological death must occur “naturally”; it cannot be intentionally hastened. Yet there are those who place more importance on the existential characteristic of being human—namely, our cognitive and psychological nature. The latter is supported by individuals who prefer an early death once their biographical life is complete—in other words, once they are no longer considered persons. Instead of “giving up,” Bulka insists that these patients should live until their “last natural breath,” a position driven by pure nostalgia for a (Jewish) religious past.
Second, Bulka exploits the communitarian justification of the disintegration thesis, which suggests that a change is social norms might produce a morally fragmented society. Bulka notes how community and solidarity are weakened when we “deny to our peril” the existence of shared Canadian values. Yet the evidence is clearly against Bulka here. The vast majority of Canadians (82%) support assisted dying for the terminally ill. As a community, we also appear to share the universal values of tolerance, autonomy and compassion in matters concerning choice in dying. Therefore, it is speculative for Bulka to think that a change in social norms automatically threatens communal stability. The change may, in fact, strengthen our belief in established constitutional values.
The third form of the disintegration thesis promoted by Bulka stems from moral repugnance. He fears that when desensitized to assisted death, we lose our sense of moral outrage and learn to tolerate the intolerable. Forwarding his own intuition as an argument of authority, Bulka insists that assisted suicide is simply wrong: “It’s not good for health care, not good for doctors and patients, not good for our approach to life.” The “wisdom” of Bulka’s repugnance implies that citizens should accept another’s feelings of revulsion at face value, as if self-evident claims were somehow “common sense.”
Lastly, an argument from corruption supplies the fourth version of the disintegration thesis. Basically, permitting one vice leads to deeper sins or social evils—the inevitable “slippery slope.” For example, the Liberal government’s proposed bill, C-14, leads us all into “turbulent waters” and “opens up the floodgates of social change” where “dedication to life-saving is sure to erode.” Although Canadian courts have consistently denied the existence of widespread abuse against vulnerable populations, and even though more jurisdictions over the past two decades have decriminalized assisted suicide, sanctity of life advocates continue to insist that disabled, poor and elderly citizens remain in grave danger. Dressed in metaphorical garb, this kind of hyperbole is used to garner emotion and sidestep evidence.
Undoubtedly, Bill C-14 does offend Rabbi Bulka’s own religious sensibilities. In an attempt to appease non-theists, he even suggests that “everyone’s values are hurt,” not just his own. But the facts speak for themselves. Since better than four of five Canadians support assisted suicide for the terminally ill, it’s safe to say that a Canadian consensus has been reached on the issue of MAID. Remarkably, this agreement occurred without the country descending into moral chaos.
Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa. His doctoral dissertation explored the death and dying debate in Canada.