Canadian church hosts assisted suicide ceremony for member with ALS

Churchill Park United Church of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Churchill Park United Church of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. | Courtesy CPUC

A Canadian church was recently the site of an assisted suicide ceremony held for one of its members diagnosed with ALS, better known in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Churchill Park United Church of Winnipeg became the first church in Manitoba to host the controversial practice, which it described as a “Crossing Over Ceremony” last month for 86-year-old Betty Sanguin.

The church's leadership team had unanimously approved Sanguin’s request for the assisted suicide ceremony that was held in the sanctuary, as she had strong ties to the congregation.

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The Rev. Dawn Rolke, minister of Churchill Park, told The Christian Post in a recent interview that it “seemed appropriate” to hold the ceremony in the sanctuary, as churches are often “host and home to all the raggedness of our lives and to some of our significant life rituals: baptism, marriage, ordination, funeral or memorial services.”

“For us, it was perfectly natural to hold this service for Betty in our sanctuary because death is a natural part of life and Betty had lived a good part of her adulthood in this faith community. Hers was a growing, changing spirituality; her faith was feisty, fierce and passionate, like Betty herself,” said Rolke.

“Some see medically-assisted death as a private matter and they sought to honor this individual’s request. Some felt it was right for Betty, in particular.”

Canada's healthcare system offers patients the option to have assisted suicide, what is known as MAiD or "medical aid in dying," in which a physician or nurse practitioner carries out the death by chemical injection.

At Churchill Park United Church of Winnipeg, the typical sanctuary seating was removed and replaced by comfortable chairs, tables, flowers and a recliner, which Sanguin sat in during the event as people came and went throughout the day to say their goodbyes. 

Friends and family visited Sanguin who was joined by her adult daughters and grandchildren, with Rolke leading the ceremony.

The chemical injection to hasten death began at 1 p.m. An hour later, Sanguin had passed.

“The children and some grandchildren went back into the sanctuary to be with Betty,” recalled Rolke. “And people began to quietly come and go from Betty’s side as the medicine took effect.”

“It was like a wake.”

By around 4 p.m., staff from a funeral home arrived to transport Sanguin's body to its chapel and make preparations for her burial. 

“We were deeply honored to be able to be with Betty in her final moments and hours and to honor her wishes around her dying process. She was so happy, she was so ready, she was so radiant,” Rolke added.

In 2016, Canada passed a law legalizing physician-assisted suicide, with the law limiting access to citizens or permanent residents who were at least 18 years old and had “a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability” that included “enduring and intolerable suffering.”

The law also required medical approval, a 15-day waiting period, and that two witnesses needed to be present when a patient signed a request for the end-of-life procedure.

The United Church of Canada, the denomination to which Churchill Park belongs, passed a resolution in 2017 stating it would allow physician-assisted suicide on a “case-by-case” basis, and acknowledged that its denominational members likely hold a "range of views" on this matter. 

“We are not opposed in principle to the legislation allowing assistance in dying and to such assistance being the informed, free choice of terminally ill patients,” stated UCC at the time.

“However, we urge a cautious approach by legislators and medical professionals implementing these laws. … To this end, we advocate community-focused and theologically robust discernment on a case-by-case basis that also ensures the protection and care of those potentially made vulnerable by this new law and others like it.”

There have been multiple controversies surrounding the implementation of the law, such as the physician-assisted suicide of 61-year-old Alan Nichols in 2019. 

CTV News reported at the time that Nichols' family argued that he was wrongfully euthanized at Chilliwack General Hospital in British Columbia because he had no terminal illnesses and suffered from depression. 

"He didn't have a life-threatening disease. He was capable of getting around. He was capable of doing almost anything that you had to do to survive," recounted Nichols' brother, Gary, as reported by CTV reported at the time.

"I didn’t think he had a sound mind at all," he added, with the family calling on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate the matter. 

Also in 2019, the family of 41-year-old ALS patient Sean Tagert demanded accountability after the government-run healthcare system refused to cover Tagert's at-home healthcare. Instead, it agreed to pay for physician-assisted suicide. 

“A Canadian man disabled by ALS didn’t want to die now. He wanted to be cared for at home so he could be with his son,” wrote Wesley Smith for the National Review at the time. “Nope. The government’s socialized healthcare system refused to pay for all the care he needed. But it sure paid to kill him by euthanasia."

Last year, the Canadian Parliament expanded the law to include those with non-life-threatening disabilities, though it would still prohibit the procedure for those suffering from mental illness.   

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr. denounced the revision last year, seeing it as proof of how physician-assisted suicide was a slippery slope.

“The Canadian Parliament have now extended the logic that they had insisted would be limited to those who had a reasonable expectation of death in a short time. You've seen that that promise never is kept,” said Mohler in an episode of his podcast, “The Briefing.”

“Once you buy into the logic of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, you find yourself in almost every case just extending the logic further and further.”

When asked its opinion of medical assistance in dying, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada told CP via an emailed statement that it opposed assisted suicide and euthanasia, believing that they “fundamentally devalue human life.”

“They suggest that some lives are not worth living. But all human life is precious, a gift from God,” stated the EFC, which advocated for palliative care instead.

“We believe the appropriate response to suffering is to address and alleviate the suffering, not to eliminate the one who suffers. We respond to those who are suffering with care and compassion, journeying with them as they walk in the shadow of death.”

EFC went on to state that while it believes that people “do not need to accept medical treatment,” it also believes that “it is not for us to choose the timing of our death.”

“It is lamentable that we as a country have decriminalized assisted suicide in response to suffering when most Canadians do not have access to high-quality palliative care and related support systems,” it added.

Rolke told CP that no one at the March ceremony approached her with objections to the procedure, though one person did express concern over it being performed in a church.

“We who participated in Betty’s ceremony witnessed, first-hand, the great dignity of medically-assisted death. I can’t say enough about the physicians and other healthcare staff who are employed in this work. They are exceptionally caring,” said Rolke.

“As a former hospital chaplain, I have witnessed the great pointlessness of some suffering. Having worked in emergency departments, in ICU and in the general hospital population in the United States and Canada, I have formed the opinion, over many years, that there is nothing dignified in needless suffering.”

Rolke added that while she had not “come to a final opinion on this matter,” she was nevertheless “comfortable with where I am at, for now.”

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