Fr. Eamon McNerney told of his experience of recommending against assisted suicide.

Fr. Eamon McNerney told of his experience of recommending against assisted suicide.

April 18,2016

Guided by Jesus' words - "Whatever you did to one the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me" - Father Eamon McNerney once refused to endorse assisted suicide for the relative of a colleague.

He instead recommended the relative receive palliative care, which aims to manage the pain and symptoms of a disease, while neither hastening death nor prolonging the dying process. The goal is to improve the quality of life for both the patient and the family.

Palliative care is available in faith-based hospitals across Alberta and many other parts of Canada.

McNerney now serves as chaplain at the University Hospital, the Stollery Children's Hospital and the Mazankowski Heart Institute in Edmonton.

The Irish-born priest, along with Dr. Robert Hauptman and Archbishop Richard Smith, addressed the third Every Life Matters meeting at Red Deer's St. Mary's Church April 10.

McNerney said his colleague sought his advice because he had been asked to accompany a very sick family member to Switzerland for assisted suicide.

"The person's life is a misery, full of pain, endless trips to the hospital," he told McNerney. "They are tired of continuous treatments without any hope for a cure. They feel life is not worth living."

Remembering the Lord's words, "Whatever you did to one the least of my brothers and sisters you did to me," McNerney told his colleague he couldn't advise assisted suicide for his relative but recommended a major review of the case. The review would evaluate the patient's pain as well as his emotional and spiritual well-being.

Then McNerney gave his colleague all the information he had on palliative care.

Shortly after, his colleague contacted McNerney to tell him that after a meeting with his medical team and family, the sick person had decided to stop aggressive medical treatment and continue with palliative care.

This decision brought peace to the family, especially after they learned that palliative care also addresses the human, psychological and spiritual needs of patients and family members.

"The person died two years later, having completed their life journey peacefully with the possibility of reconciliation and healing with their family and friends."

In February 2015, the Supreme Court ruled the law prohibiting physician-assisted death violated Canadians' charter rights. The government must implement new legislation by June 6.

In his introduction at the Red Deer meeting, Archbishop Smith said the court's dismissal of the sanctity of life amounts to "killing of the innocent."

"In the teaching of Jesus, we know that everyone matters and deserves equal respect," Smith said. "Killing the innocent is an offence against God and a very serious sin."

Hauptman, an Edmonton pain consultant, is not persuaded by the raw definition of suffering used to justify assisted suicide.


Many diseases can cause people to suffer, he said. The good news is that 21st century medicine has the tools to help patients relieve pain and suffering while maintaining human dignity.

"It's not just morphine anymore," Hauptman exclaimed, naming countless medications, from pain killers and anti-depressants to medical marijuana.

"If a person doesn't respond to one drug, we can easily switch him to another."

Hauptman believes that how suffering and death are dealt with is almost as important as how we deal with life. Often those who ask for assisted suicide fear being a burden to their family. If the family shows them they are loved, their attitude may change.

"I encourage family members to surround their loved ones when they going through end-of-life care," he said. "Sit beside them and talk to them about family memories."

Some attending the meeting said assisted suicide and euthanasia are not in the cards for them or their families.


"I'm extremely against both," Ruth Simonsen said. "If I was suffering, I would ask for pain management. But if the extreme pain comes at the end of my life and the (pain medication) is going to prolong my life, then I prefer to go into God's hands."

Catherine McNiff of Sylvan Lake said she would never request assisted suicide.

"I'm shocked that our government is in the process of accepting assisted suicide. I think they are ignoring the commandment 'You shall not kill,'" she said.

"Both the federal and the provincial governments are shirking their responsibility to provide adequate palliative care for people in distress."

John Marcinek said God is the only one to decide when a person dies. He wouldn't request assisted suicide even in the face of extreme suffering, "because I would want to suffer as Jesus suffered for us."