To Serve Life

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 1 January 1995


In Winnipeg, Canada's first "wrongful life" lawsuit was recently settled out of court. Parents sued their family doctor for misdiagnosing a prenatal test, claiming their Downs Syndrome baby should never have been born. In Pensacola Florida, Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister faces possible death in the electric chair for murdering a doctor who performs abortions. Robert Latimer is convicted of second degree murder in Saskatchewan for killing his 12 year old severely disabled daughter. Federal MP Svend Robinson is under investigation because he was present last February when Sue Roderigues ended her life. In Holland, a land that has permitted physician assisted suicide for over twenty years, two doctors are on trial for "assisting" children who were chronically ill, rather than terminally ill. In Oregon, an injunction has been issued, preventing the state from putting into effect its voter-approved assisted suicide law until a court can decide if it is constitutional. And Cathie Wilkieson of Hamilton, killed herself and her sixteen year old disabled son just before Christmas.

We are confused and afraid. Afraid for our society with its whims and indulgences, afraid of being overwhelmed by the dependence of others, afraid of diminished capacities or a prolonged and painful death, afraid of perhaps some day being seen as not valuable enough to warrant societies resources, afraid that when we are in need, there may be no one there, afraid of the stresses of living and coping, afraid of the precariousness of life and the uncertainties surrounding death.

We give voice to our fears and our confusion, with more questions than answers. If assisted suicide is legalized, will the poor, the old and the disabled receive a bit more assistance than others? Or the rich perhaps, from grasping relatives? Could voluntary euthanasia, somehow slip into involuntary euthanasia?

And abortion? To what extent is it fuelled by our western quest for a life free of inconvenience? Who decides when a life is "wrongful"? Could unwanted babies be next? And yet, what happens to unplanned, unwanted children in our society?

Our responsibilities to others? Did Robert Latimer's daughter really want to die? Lying in a hospital bed, unable to walk, to speak, to smile and say hello, to recognize familiar faces, what would our loved one want right now? When we are responsible for the fate of a parent, to what extent do our own needs, the need to keep someone with us, the need to get it over with and finished, to what extent do these influence our decisions?

And the future? As technology performs more and more miracles, can we afford to keep more and more people alive? Can we, should we attempt to measure quality of life against life itself? So may questions. How do we even begin to answer?

In 1920 in Germany, physician Alfred Hoche and lawyer Karl Binding published a pamphlet entitled The Sanctioning of the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living. It urged that scant resources not be wasted on people who were sick and suffering and that the needs of the individual were unimportant when measured against a Germany that needed revitalization and the elimination of weak elements. Thus began twenty-five years of medically sanctioned involuntary euthanasia, forced sterilization and eugenic policies that led to the extermination of millions of people. That era came to an end but 50 years ago, and it is idle to deny it. Is there anything more precious than life itself? We are afraid.

And so we harness the resources at our disposal. We invent moral codes to live by: the Hippocratic Oath, the Bible and it's commandments, the Pope's encyclical on abortion and birth control, traditional Christian doctrine that only God knows life's purpose, and therefore only God ought to determine when it should end, that through suffering comes salvation. We lay out moral standards as a blue print for our lives.

Along with standards, we establish principles: "the inherent worth and dignity of every person", "acceptance of one another", "the free and responsible search for truth and meaning" all speak to the principle of autonomy, individuals who are not hurting others ought to be able to determine the course and the outcome of their own lives. "Justice equity and compassion in human relations", "the goal of world community", "the interdependent web of all existence", speak to the principle of beneficence, one ought to do what is honestly believed to be in the best interests of another. Principles and moral codes are one means of calming our fears and uncertainty.

We rely on science as yet another resource, seeking to ignore our fears by stretching the sunlit hours of the day and eliminating the capriciousness of the night. Antibiotics, immunizations, insulin, dialysis, radiation, chemotherapy, AZT, abortion, invetreo-fertilization, frozen fertilized eggs, artificial sleep, euthanasia. The ultimate goal? Life and death at our command.

But, science creates its own problems. Technology stretches the possible, but leaves us wrestling to understand what it is we have created. When does life begin? At the moment of conception, at the threshold of viability, at birth, when the dog dies and the kids leave home? When does it end? When breathing stops, when the brain ceases all activity, when the heart can no longer be made to take up its tired dance in response to electric shock? We are left wondering, what is best for society. Our resources are limited, and yet our abilities grow. Can we afford to keep everyone alive? Is a child of more value than an old person or an old person of more value than a child? Should we even be asking these questions, we ask.

Science struggles with what is possible. Morality asks what we ought to do. A third resource is law. Law sanctifies our choices: Abortion is legal. Euthanasia is not. The death penalty is legal. Surrogate motherhood is not. The right to refuse extraordinary measures in our own medical care is acceptable, assisted suicide is not. The questions of life and death are fashioned into answers by law.

But do laws answer our deepest concerns, our buried fears? In Germany today, it is impossible to even talk about euthanasia, fifty years after doctors collaborated with the government during the Nazi era. Despite the fact that suicide was decriminalized in Germany in 1751, assisted suicide is only legal if the assistance is not given by a physician.

In Holland, on the other hand, physicians en masse refused to identify patients to Nazi officials during the German occupation, even after 100 doctors were randomly rounded up and sent to concentration camps. In that country, both assisted suicide and euthanasia have been an accepted part of medical treatment for over 20 years. But both must be performed by a doctor, after a persistent, voluntary and durable request by the patient, and only if the patient is fully informed, there is hopeless suffering and no acceptable alternative treatments.

Author and journalist Anne Mullens writes, "Central to the Dutch acceptance of euthanasia, is the fact the population has tremendous trust and respect for the medical profession. Unlike the US and Canada, there are almost no malpractice suits against doctors."

The difference between the german experience and the dutch experience leads me to suspect that the particular answers we personally embrace often have as much to do with our individual fears as anything else. The person concerned to die quickly watched someone else die slowly and painfully. The person who is most adamantly in favour of abortion has known the devastation wrought by an unanticipated and unwanted pregnancy. The disabled resolutely oppose both assisted suicide and prenatal testing and abortion, imagining that their own life just might be termed "of no value" or even "wrongful" in society's eyes.

We each emerge out of our particular experiences. And those experiences give shape to our fears, which in turn determine the questions we most yearn to have answered.

And what is the ultimate answer? Beneath all the particulars of political ideology, life experience, personal history, time, place and circumstance, is there a single unifying imperative?

I titled this sermon after a phrase in our Unison Affirmation: "To serve life." Most Sundays we covenant together, "to serve life." What does that mean? More technology? A return to the moral standards of yesterday? Respect for individual autonomy? A life dedicated to serving the needs of others? What are we saying when we covenant together "to serve life"?

I don't have a stone tablet up here, with the truth engraved on it. All I can tell you is what it means for me. For myself, "to serve life" means struggling to ask questions and seeking to discover answers in a world confused. To serve life means somehow balancing my own needs with the needs of others in a world often overwhelmed by suffering and sadness. To serve life means living fully so that when death comes I will have fewer regrets. It means not closing my eyes to unpleasant reality, but wrestling with issues, acknowledging fears, going forward even when the route is not obvious, respecting and supporting the choices of others, accepting my own humanness and the humanness of others. To serve life is to risk, to accept responsibility and to forgive. It is being slow to judge and quick to forgive. It is learning to trust one another. To serve life means embracing life with all it ambiguity. It means coming together as a community and a world, acknowledging our connectedness to all that was, is and will be. Serving life is an act of courage, an act of faith, an act of hope, and an act of love.

If your friend wanted help dying, would you assist? If you had a progressively degenerative disease that you knew would leave you alive but severely diminished, how would you manage the end of your life? If your mother was unable to communicate her wishes, how would you make decisions about her care? If you had a child with an unrelentingly painful disability, what would you do? If you suspected your relatives were waiting impatiently for your end, how would you cope? If you had to determine the fate of a man who's answer is to kill abortionists, what would you decide?

These situations exist. And we don't have any simple answers. But we do have some principles that might guide us. And we have the power to nurture relationships of trust and love and a community that will be there in times of need.