4 min read

The cold truth of Canadian lives not worth living

M. Ciftci has a PhD in political theology from the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book about church-state relations that will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

Canada’s implementation of medical assistance in dying concerns M. Ciftci, showing that a society consider some lives not worth living. Part of the How to Die Well series.
A IV drip bag hangs from a medical stand.
Marcelo Leal on Unsplash.

Alan Nichols’ application for euthanasia mentions only one health condition as the reason for his request: hearing loss. “Alan was basically put to death,” according to his brother. He was hospitalized after being found dehydrated and malnourished in his house. He asked his brother to “bust him out” of the hospital as soon as possible. A month after being admitting, he was euthanized through MAID (medical assistance in dying), despite the desperate objections of his family and his primary health practitioner. They were informed of the procedure over the phone only four days before it took place. They have since reported Alan’s case to the police; they argue he was not in a fit state of mind to understand the procedure or make decisions for himself. He had no life-threatening conditions. He was vulnerable. 

Canada’s relaxed laws around MAID came to international attention when CTV News reported that a fifty-one-year-old woman chose MAID after failing for two years to find housing that would allow her to manage her multiple chemical sensitivities. Despite the best efforts of friends and even her doctors to get her suitable housing in Toronto, letters left behind documented her desperate yet fruitless search for help. She begged officials at all layers of government to help find an apartment free from the chemicals and cigarette and marijuana smoke that worsened her symptoms. “The government sees me as expendable trash, a complainer, useless and a pain in the a**,” she said in a video days before her death. 

These are only some of the terrible stories that have been reported after Canada became the first Commonwealth country to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia. Advocates of MAID will point to how comfortable Canadians are with it. As a recent poll revealed, MAID is supported by 73 per cent of Canadians, with 27 per cent supporting MAID even if the only affliction is poverty, 28 per cent for homelessness, and 20% for any reason whatsoever. Those numbers may shift as disability activists and medical professionals continue to raise the alarm over the consequences of growing numbers choosing MAID, from 2,838 deaths in 2017 to 10,064 in 2021. 

MAID was introduced in 2016... Only those suffering from incurable diseases whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” were eligible, initially. 

There are two reasons why the Canadian example teaches us to remain firmly opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in the UK.  

The first is that the slippery slope in this case is real. Campaigners for Dignity in Dying claim they want only the legalisation of assisted suicide, not of euthanasia. The latter involves a doctor directly administering lethal drugs, without requiring the patient’s participation. (MAID permits both, although euthanasia is the method used in 99 per cent of cases.) They argue there is no evidence that legalising assisted suicide in the UK would lead to a loosening of laws over time. But this is contradicted by the timeline of events in Canada.  

MAID was introduced in 2016 following the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in 2015 that the criminalisation of assisted suicide violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Only those suffering from incurable diseases whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” were eligible, initially. But the MAID evangelists did not wait long before complaining that this was too restrictive. The courts obliged, and in 2019 the court of Quebec found the “reasonably foreseeable” condition to contravene the Charter. In 2021 the laws were changed to allow MAID for those whose natural death was not foreseeable, but who have a condition considered intolerable by the applicant. Those suffering only from mental illnesses will be eligible for MAID in March 2024.  

The slope becomes more slippery still: the government is considering further expansion to allow “mature minors”, vaguely defined as children mature enough to make their own treatment decisions, to ask to be killed, even against a parent’s wishes.     

A society that kills those who ask to be killed has already made a choice to consider some lives not worth living,

The second lesson is about what kind of society we want to be. For a doctor to present the option of being killed, which Canadian doctors are now obliged to do whenever “medically relevant”, even if the patient does not bring it up first, does not expand patients’ freedom. It is rather an invitation to despair. This is frequently forgotten when some think that denying patients the choice to seek death is “imposing Christian values” as one cleric of the Anglican Church of Canada said. Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and others have opposed MAID because a society that kills those who ask to be killed has already made a choice to consider some lives not worth living, and to invite those already made vulnerable by their pain and distress to see themselves as a burden to others. Not to mention the perverse incentives created to reduce medical and palliative care.  

We can and should support those who are frail and in need of care at the end of their lives to die with dignity, without hastening their deaths, without deeming their lives no longer worth living. Dame Cicely Saunders and other pioneers of the hospice movement have shown us what an alternative to assisted suicide and euthanasia would look like. Hospices put into practice the parable of the Good Samaritan, who responded with pity to the man beaten by robbers, bandaging his wounds and giving him a place to rest and receive care. Jesus tells the parable to show what it means to be a good neighbour to someone and how to react with compassion to suffering. What would have been the message of the parable if the Samaritan had instead reacted to the sight of the suffering man by reaching for his dagger?    

Popular articles

6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

Popular articles