The 20/20 Morality of Hindsight
Do you ever wonder what things we do or accept today that may be condemned by subsequent generations? Car culture and fossil fuel use for sure.
We look back, these days, pretty clear about the “sins of the fathers.” That is, the sins and failures of those no longer living. We now agree, for example, that slavery is wrong, an evil practice and institution. We speak of anyone who owned slaves, say George Washington, as an “enslaver,” who falls beneath our moral bar.
While I believe slavery abhorrent and wish that it had never existed in the U.S., I am also prepared to think that there were times and cultures when it was an established part of life, and that judging those of other times and cultures by our present insights and standards can be a little too easy.
But let’s consider some other possibilities. As readers know, I have lived and worked in Canada quite a bit; love Canada and her people. Over the last thirty years there has been a painful awakening in Canada, particularly in the churches, to the sins and failures of the “residential schools.” A reckoning with these issues via a truth and reconciliation process continues. Native children were sent — often taken — to these schools where the standard shearing of their hair was an outward sign of something far worse, being shorn of family, language and culture, really of their humanity.
In hindsight, we now see this as part of a larger genocide directed against indigenous people in the Americas. That said, I am pretty sure that at the time, the politicians, citizens and church leaders that were a part of the residential schools thought, and believed, that they were doing the right thing. But in hindsight, there is a consensus that these schools, and those who worked in and supported them, were doing something wrong, if not horrific.
Which brings me to 2024 in Canada. This year Canada’s already expansive laws regarding euthanasia will be broadened further. In 2016 Canada enacted one of the world’s most liberal medical assistance in dying (MAID) laws. Initially, these measures allowed someone who was reasonably certain to be near death, to chose MAID, to hasten death and end suffering.
Such measures are similar to the states in the U.S., including Washington, which have legalized some form of ending one’s life under medical supervision. One difference is that most of the jurisdictions where this is legal in the U.S. allow physician assisted suicide not euthanasia. What’s the difference? With the former the person who is ending their life has the responsibility of mixing and administering the chemicals that will end their lives. This involves awareness and agency on the part of person who is ending their life.
Euthanasia is more like what happens when you take a sick or dying pet to a vet. The vet delivers an injection that causes death. In Canada where both are options are available, euthanasia now far outdistances physician assisted suicide. MAID was the cause of 3.3% of all deaths in Canada in 2022. That number is expected to rise significantly when 2023 reporting is in.
Meanwhile, the Canadian MAID measures will soon (March 2024) become even broader. A person exercising their “right to die” in Canada need not be dying (actually already true). A painful or debilitating chronic condition is sufficient basis for MAID. And now a mental illnesses will be considered one of the kind of chronic conditions making someone eligible for MAID. Other changes to the law reduce the requirement for witnesses, who confirm a person’s choice of MAID, from two doctors to one other person.
In a 2022 article in Psychology Today, the physician and author of The Lost Art of Dying, L. S. Dugdale summed up arguments for and against MAID and similar measures in other nations.
“Arguments in favor of either type of assisted death tend to focus on relief of suffering, compassion, and self-determination . . . Some advocates have suggested that since hospice and palliative care measures are not universally available, it makes sense to be able to control the timing and manner of one’s death.
“On the flip side, opponents of legalization worry that killing people instead of providing access to good hospice and palliative care lets governments and health care systems off the hook . . . and that it will lead to abuses of marginalized groups.”
With the more expansive MAID provisions, writes Dugdale, “the reasons for ending life expand markedly . . . In March 2021, the [revised] law allowed for the euthanasia of anyone with chronic conditions, including a disability, regardless of death’s imminence. People have been euthanized for the ‘suffering’ of having housing or medical bills they cannot afford. A military veteran and paralympic athlete was seeking to have a chair lift installed in her home, but instead she was offered MAID.”
I understand that there are compelling arguments for physician assisted suicide, now termed “compassion in dying” or “peaceful and compassionate transition.” But might future generations find that we “let governments and health systems [that is, society] off the hook” as euthanasia became common and spread to vulnerable populations?
We tend to think of ourselves as enlightened and moral superior to our predecessors. Are we? Back to my original question, what do we today accept, or believe to be “good,” that may be found abhorrent by future generations?