National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Last week, Justice Minister Peter MacKay struck a committee to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling that Canadians have a right to die with dignity. The task is nothing less than to shed the state’s antiquated views on dying and to position this new right as the highest expression of our most cherished value: autonomy.

Autonomy is a uniquely modern value. Before the modern era, people were simply born into their station. In matters of law and custom, ordinary people were expected to defer to the clergy and aristocrats and had few choices about their status or their lives.

The rise of science provided a new foundation for knowledge. Intellectuals quickly recognized its power as a tool for social change and used it to challenge the veracity of religious teaching and the authority of the clergy and aristocracy.

But undermining the authority of religion and politics had an unintended consequence. It left individuals in charge of their personal lives. In the three centuries since, a very different vision of society and of daily life has emerged, one based on individual choice, rather than obedience.

In the modern era, a person’s life has been redefined as a journey and a creative task. Rather than being born into a station, each individual is free to choose a life and build a unique identity. Each individual’s story is seen as his/her own work of art.

But to create this work of art, persons must have the freedom to make all kinds of choices about their values, their future and their personal well-being—choices that would have been inconceivable to our ancestors, only a few centuries ago.

Individual rights are therefore essential to this vision of personhood. They set the parameters in which choices can be made and limit a government’s authority to intervene or control how an individual’s story is written or unfolds. Respect for the sanctity of this personal space is the philosophical motif that distinguishes modern societies from traditional ones.

The right to die with dignity is significant not only because it defines the outermost boundaries of this space, but because it provides the clearest statement of the rationale for respecting human freedom. It affirms that no one is better positioned to understand the impact of suffering on a life, or to weigh the value of preserving or ending it, than the author of that story.

To presume otherwise is to challenge the very premise of modern societies and of our modern identity. It is to challenge the value of autonomy and to reassert the old system of class and tradition.

As MacKay’s committee proceeds with its work, this story should be clear and present in the minds of its members. They will need it to weigh the arguments fairly. Some are practical, such as the fear of fostering a culture that puts pressure on the most vulnerable in society—those with disabilities or the elderly—to end their lives. But if the committee is diligent and impartial, it will find measures to address such concerns.

The more worrying challenge comes from arguments of a second sort: religious doctrine. Certainly, religious groups have every right to express their views, but the committee must distinguish between two very different kinds of arguments they will hear: evidence-based and supernatural.

Consider Pope Francis, who says that climate change threatens the world. In his view, modern societies are captives of consumerism, which, in turn, drives global warming. People and organizations should mobilize against this to protect the environment and prevent harm.

Francis’ argument is refreshingly modern, in the sense that people can take issue with it and provide evidence against it. As for the fact that he is a religious leader, this is not grounds to dismiss his views. The separation of church and state does not prevent Francis from engaging in political debate. Its point is rather that, if he does, he cannot appeal to supernatural premises.

For an example of this, consider the views expressed by Pope Benedict XVI on physician assisted dying. According to this pope, “the deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit.”

From the viewpoint of public policy, this claim should have no standing, not because it comes from a pope, but because there is no clear evidence to support it nor in any obvious way to disprove it. It is grounded in religious beliefs of a supernatural kind, such as the existence of God or the soul, the idea of divine guidance, or the veracity of revealed texts.

While individuals are free to believe such things, they have no standing in public policy, especially where they are being advanced to limit the rights of others.

The moral for MacKay’s committee is that, in a modern society, the burden of proof should always be on those who seek to limit our rights, not those who seek to enjoy them. As Section 1 of the Charter says, our rights and freedoms are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

If the committee is to do its job felicitously, respect for personal autonomy must serve as the touchstone for its deliberations, rather than religious doctrine. If so, its recommendations will seek to affirm our autonomy by maximizing the scope for choice, rather than minimizing it. That, after all, is what distinguishes modern societies like our own from the theocracies and autocracies we left behind.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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