If you ever wanted to know what some observers mean when they speak of “the culture of death,” just listen the recent interview by CBC Radio’s Carol Off with Jean Vanier.
Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, “the Ark”, an international network of communities that care for the mentally disabled by putting them, not in hospitals or “care centres”, but in homes—real homes. Rather than treating those with intellectual disabilities as inconveniences to be shuffled out of the way, L’Arche assistants treat them as core members in the community life they share.
In a recent editorial for the Globe and Mail, Vanier commented on the looming physician-assisted suicide legislation in Canada, warning that “we must take care not to obscure or forget the innate dignity of those who are vulnerable”.
He believes we should always ensure that, rather than forcing everyone to feel like they have to be independent (thus leading them to fear becoming useless burdens in their old age), we should instead focus on allowing people to accept their own fragility and realize that they are loved and meaningful not just for what they can do, but for who they are.
This whole philosophy is a warm contrast to the cold, contemporary idea that if someone seems too broken to enjoy life sufficiently, then the best option is to help that person kill him or herself.
If you want to see how ingrained that latter mentality is, listen to Carol Off’s interview with Vanier for CBC. Her questions, over and over, circle back to the same basic script:
And, over and over, Vanier refuses to let himself be locked into this merciless mentality of the secular world.
Off is asking the wrong questions: When someone is ill and wants to die, the question isn’t: Should we craft legislation to ensure that they can? The proper question is: How do we prevent people from feeling that way?
Vanier consistently counters Off’s queries with this (revolutionary!) attitude: If someone wants to die, they are probably depressed, or lonely, or feel useless or pressured. The remedy for this is to take every effort to ensure that every sick and ailing person feels loved and cared for so that this suicidal idea isn’t there in the first place.
This is a beautiful, life-affirming approach, which Off never engages. For example, when Vanier proposes that a better question is how to encourage palliative care, Off replies:
“Do you think that people should have the legal right to choose the timing of their death and to have assistance in doing that?”
Rather than asking this Order of Canada-winning humanitarian with over a half-century’s experience of caring for persons with disabilities and who are sick what strategies he recommends Canada put in place, she just keeps asking: Yeah, but shouldn’t we be allowed to help kill them, too?
He gently refuses to play this game, replying:
“People could go through periods of just fatigue, depression, loneliness. So we mustn't go too quick to just say, ‘there's a legal right’. They also have a legal right to be walked with, accompanied, and helped.”
Once again, rather than actually interacting with this, Off tries to nudge Vanier in the direction she wants him to go. “I know you’re not a lawyer,” she begins, patronizingly, “You talk about interdependence, and the importance of seeing families, but our Charter is based on the unit of society being the individual,” so shouldn’t the individual’s right to choose what he wants (even death) be enshrined in law?
No questions about what Vanier thinks of the proposed Vulnerable Persons Standard, which strives to protect people from being pressured into medically-administered death; no question of how society can seek to ensure more people feel loved and cared for.
Once again, it comes back to—putting it bluntly—letting them die. And once again, he graciously sidesteps this morbidity:
“Lawmakers should also realize that the human being—we're born in weakness, and we die in weakness, and that we're all vulnerable, and that we all always need help. A society needs to encourage opening up our hearts to those who are weaker and more fragile.”
Finally—in a section not recorded in the official CBC transcript of this interview—Vanier makes this point explicitly:
“It’s not just a question of legislation about death, but we should also have legislation about life, to help people to live and to live fully and to create situations where people are in depression—communities where people can find healing…How can we encourage society to becoming more caring for the weak and the fragile?”
And he finally directly answers Off’s question, the only question she seems to ask for the entire interview:
“You will come back to the—you know, ‘shouldn’t we have legislation to permit this?’ I say, ‘Yes, but let’s put in safeguards.’ I mean, we need more and more people who will be mediators so that life will come! What is important is that people will be fully living!”
The problem is the extent to which Vanier was practically goaded into saying this. As he mentioned, Off kept coming back to this point of euthanizing the very sorts of people to whom Vanier has dedicated his whole life to meaningfully accompanying. His main point was that a society should be proactive in making the weak feel welcomed rather than inconvenient.
But the culture of moral libertinism—I can do whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t (seem to) hurt others—is, Vanier detects, the very culture which can do violence to a great many suffering people, and the fact that CBC’s anchors take it so much for granted that they can’t even follow the reasoning of someone who challenges it, should terrify us.