If a Christian doctor won’t assist a suicide, should the law make him find one who will?
An intriguing headline in very large type was spread across the top of a page in the National Post earlier this month. It read: “When religion must yield to the law.” In the story beneath it, which covered most of a page, Toronto lawyer Derek Smith who (says the Post) “has been cited to the Supreme Court of Canada as a legal authority,” defends the stipulation that doctors who refuse to assist in suicides be required by law to direct applicants to other doctors who would. A group of Christian doctors are objecting. They argue that providing such information amounts to an endorsement of the procedure.
“Their lawsuit will likely fail,” writes Mr. Smith. “It deserves to fail. Religious freedom sometimes has to yield to laws that prevent religious people from harming others.” Notice the implication — a doctor who refuses to help somebody exterminate themselves is “harming” them. The Christian doctors, of course, believing that suicide is an ultimate sin, do not see themselves doing harm but doing good. There could be dire consequences for such an act, they say. That is, they are claiming to know something about the next world. But is not lawyer Smith doing the same thing? He’s presumably satisfied there won’t be any consequences at all in the next world. How would he know this, you wonder.
That Mr. Smith is learned in the law, I do not doubt at all. But he does not seem very learned in history. For the fact is that the whole direction of society for at nearly all of the last sixteen hundred years has been a process in which the law has had to yield to religion. Civilization in western Europe was pretty well brought to an end in the fifth century. With the collapse of imperial Rome, barbarism largely reasserted itself. The state, as we know it, had almost ceased to be, and in the centuries that followed, it was the Christians who restored the civil order.
The law, insofar as there was one, was a product of Christianity, founded on Christian principles and the teaching of Christ as biblically recorded. The Christians wanted the slave trade abolished and the law yielded. The Christians wanted child labor abolished and the law yielded. The Christians wanted safety in the mines and on ships at sea, and the law yielded. The Christians wanted the seven-day work week abolished and the law yielded
The Christian does not believe in something called “religion.” He believes in God. And when he sees a headline that reads “religion must yield to the law,” it seems to be saying that God must yield to the law. That is, the Power or Mind, or Order, or whatever you want to call it. that produced the universe, that made the natural order and all the creatures in it, including us, must somehow bow and “yield” in the awesome presence of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was created in a country called Canada whose lifespan in cosmic terms is as the snap of the fingers, in a world that is known to be running down and, so the scientists say, is undeniably doomed to extinction, as is the whole universe. A pretty grim story, unless there is something beyond the natural order.
I would have thought that Mr. Smith personally dismisses such a possibility until I came to an unexpected phrase in his article. He described one proposal made in the controversy as “justifiable and therefore legal.” In other words, the law itself is subject to a kind of standard called “justice.” A law that is not “justifiable” cannot be legal, or so he seems to be saying. But then where does this idea of “justice” come from? The Christians would answer that God put it in us. He made us able to see when a law was just, or as we would say “fair.” Mr. Smith plainly believes in justice, but does not explain where the concept comes from, or what gives it an authority over the laws of the state.
The question matters greatly. We as a society founded our laws on biblical principles and the Christian faith. We are now well into the process of discarding that authority. Hence we adopt such novelties as assisted suicide, gay marriage, easy divorce, all founded on….what exactly? Mr. Smith doesn’t tell us. One gradually reaches the conclusion that they’re founded on an unbounded quest for “freedom” without consequent responsibilities. The ultimate authority comes down to “me.” It’s right because I want it. If this be so, then however bountiful our technological progress, we are not living in an advancing society, but in one that is in the full throes of disintegration.
In other words, Mr. Kenney, you are a Calgarian. Listen to your fellow Calgarians. I am an Edmontonian. Don’t listen to us. We are living for the moment in a very false world.
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.