As It Happens

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, urges caution on doctor-assisted dying law

As Canada's parliament grapples with an impending deadline to write physician-assisted dying legislation, the Canadian founder of the L'Arche Foundation urges caution. He says lawmakers should consider how society can best support individuals nearing the end of their lives.
Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche (Elodie Perriot/L'Arche)

Facing a June 6 deadline, Parliament is under pressure to pass legislation governing assisted dying. The Supreme Court of Canada gave it 16 months to craft the bill. But some say that wasn't enough time to get it right. Even within the Liberal party, critics complain the law is too restrictive, legally flawed, and — to those who still oppose the idea — completely unacceptable.

With the clock ticking loudly, anyone with an opinion is fighting to be heard. And one voice that has been consistently, quietly urging caution belongs to Jean Vanier. He's the Canadian founder of the L'Arche Foundation, a network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities.

Vanier spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Trosly-Breuil, France. Here is part of their conversation.

We're putting a lot in the hands of the medical without putting many safeguards in.- Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche Foundatoin
Carol Off: Mr. Vanier, I know you have been following the debate here in Canada, as our government forms a law on physician-assisted dying. What do you think is the most important thing for lawmakers to keep in mind while they do that? 

Jean Vanier: My question is always how to put into legislation certain safeguards. Now, there are people who are terribly lonely. They want to die. So what help is getting to people who feel lonely? And how to think about a society where we're more concerned for each other and trying to love each other and help each other. We're putting a lot in the hands of the medical (community) without putting many safeguards in.

CO: But at the same time, do not lawmakers have to keep in mind those people who are in intense pain, who are facing a lifetime of suffering — whatever's left to their lives — to what degree do their rights have to be balanced out in this?

[W]e mustn't go too quick to just say 'there's a legal right.' [People] also have a legal right to be walked with, accompanied and helped.- Jean Vanier

JV: There should be a right for somebody who really wants to die, because of the intense pain. Yes, we can obviously accept that. But the question is how to encourage palliative care? Because we can move quite quickly into just the rights of a person who's in pain. And so it's really being attentive to those who are in pain, and how can we help people during these periods to die peacefully. 

CO: Do you think that people should have the legal right to choose the timing of their death and to have assistance in doing that?

(Elodie Perriot/L'Arche)

JV: 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. 

CO: I realize you're not a lawyer, and you're talking from a point of view of a man of faith, from a philosophical point of view, from a man who cares for the vulnerable. You talk about interdependence, and the importance of seeing families. But our Charter is based on the unit of society being the individual, and the rights of the individual are those that lawmakers have to craft their legislation around. So what advice can you give them?

JV: So I hear what you're saying — that everybody is independent. Of course, we're also all interdependent. We need all to be loved, in order to find the beauty of life. And of course, what we see here in all our communities of L'Arche. And people come to us maybe who are quite violent, who are in depression, but then they discover something. They discover that they're loved. 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. 

CO: You've said elsewhere that one of the things that alarms you is that people in our individualistic societies often feel ashamed when we ask for help. So how does that play into the debate on physician-assisted dying? What is it about feeling that shame for being needy or helpless that alarms you? 

[M]y God, we need each other, we need help, we need good doctors, we need the old people's homes. We are all fragile, we all need help, and yet at the same time we all have strengths.- Jean Vanier

JV: So the "something" in society that's going wrong when we thinking all the time that people have to be perfectly independent, perfectly strong, where in reality, my God, we need each other, we need help, we need good doctors, we need the old people's homes; where there's caring and where there're not just one or two nurses or helpers looking after too many people and nobody has time to listen to each other. There's a fundamental sickness in our society. And how can we, little by little, discover this? To move from theto the we — we are all fragile, we all need help, and yet at the same time we all have strengths. You see, the extraordinary thing here in L'Arche is that so many people with disabilities — they bring forth within us a capacity to love and to be in communion with one another, and to have fun. 

CO: If you don't mind, one final personal question: I'm wondering, can you imagine circumstances in which you might choose to end your life, and to seek assistance to do so?

I can say here in L'Arche, we have become quite frequently friends of death. That can sound strange. But when people die here, we have a big celebration.- Jean Vanier

JV: It's certainly a very personal question. And I would say no, I can't see. But, you see, I have never lived intense pain. My own situation is that I lived in community, I'm with people, I know I'm loved, and I love people. I've comforted quite a lot of people in their deathbeds. And I can say here in L'Arche, we have become quite frequently friends of death.That can sound strange. But when people die here, we have a big celebration, and we talk about them. We have photos of them. And we laugh and we cry, you know, because even on their deathbeds,  we can hold their hands, look into their eyes, and say, "I love you."

This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more, take a listen to our full interview with Jean Vanier.