How is that euthanasia, an act that would have been ethically unthinkable in Canada a decade ago, has morphed into a symbol of progressive, modern thinking? Is there any hope of stopping this kind of “progress” in our society?

These are some of the questions internationally renowned bioethicist Margaret Somerville addressed during a seminar Saturday as part of a weekend conference on “Hope in Times of Ethical Dilemma.”

“I believe that history will see the legalization of euthanasia as the most world-changing decision of the 21st century and that they will view it with enormous regret,” Dr. Somerville told about 100 people at Providence Renewal Centre. “It represents a seismic shift in our foundational values.”

That shift, she argued, reflects a larger societal shift between so-called “progressive” and “conservative” values. In the case of euthanasia, “what we have is a conflict between respect for individual autonomy and respect for the value of human life.”

Proponents don’t consider euthanasia as anything other than a matter of personal choice, she said. The problem is that it’s much harder to portray its wider impacts on hospitals, on the institutions of medicine and law, on freedom of conscience and religion.

“Because you haven’t got a physical reality that you can put in front of a television camera that starts crying and saying ‘Why wouldn’t you let me out of this terrible suffering?’ We know we are very visually programmed; if we can’t get visual images, it’s very hard to make your case.”

But the impacts of legalized euthanasia go far beyond an individual terminally ill patient. For example, when the palliative care unit at the McGill University Health Centre announced it would not provide physician-assisted suicide, the Quebec health minister threatened to withdraw its public funding. In the U.S., every state that has legalized physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill has also experienced a rise in the general suicide rate. Oregon, the first state to legalize PAS, had the lowest suicide rate in the U.S.; now it has the second highest.

Canada’s euthanasia legislation is fairly restrictive right now, but there is already pressure to expand the conditions under which physician-assisted death is offered. In the Netherlands, a pioneer in euthanasia, a man who suffered from years of alcoholism was recently granted his request for euthanasia, and the Dutch parliament is also considering extending the service to people who are not sick or dying but simply believe they have lived a “completed life.”

When suicide and euthanasia become acceptable responses to suffering, those who are disabled or vulnerable can expect to be offered this “solution” to their pain and suffering. That’s one reason why Dr. Somerville and some 40 other experts in medicine, law, public policy, ethics and advocacy for people with disabilities have developed the Vulnerable Persons Standard.

The Standard proposes a series of safeguards that would help protect vulnerable and disabled persons from coercion and abuse under the Medical Assistance in Dying law. Dr. Somerville urges everyone to visit the website at and add their names in support of the movement.

How should we respond to suffering? “The pro-euthanasia answer is a lethal injection,” says Dr. Somerville. “The anti-euthanasia argument is with hope and love.”

“We have to be adamant advocates of killing the pain and suffering, but not killing the person.”

That raises the issue of pain management and palliative care. The International Association for the Study of Pain has issued a ground-breaking statement called the Declaration of Montreal, which states that access to pain management is a fundamental human right.

“I was involved in the drafting, and I think it’s the single most important thing I’ve done,” said Dr. Somerville. “Because if we can ensure people that they wouldn’t be left in pain, they wouldn’t go for euthanasia.”

So we are called to advocate for better access to palliative care, to advocate for our loved ones who are suffering or dying, and to try to find common ground with those who see killing as a solution.

The environmental movement is one place where Dr. Somerville believes we can find that common ground. We all share the value that our environment should be respected and preserved for future generations; it’s up to Christians to speak about respect for human life as part of that natural environment. And for Christians, hope is vital for effecting any change.

“Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit,” says Dr. Somerville. “Without it, our spirit dies. With it, we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Hope is to the human spirit as oxygen is to the human body. Hope requires a connection to the future, a belief that what we do now can have an impact on the future, even if that future does not include us.”

She loves the way St. Augustine put it: "Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”