The Canadian government, with its leaders, functionaries, and even its medical acolytes, may well deserve to be charged with crimes against humanity. I am not speaking about crimes done against indigenous peoples, a different area of moral and judicial concern. I have in mind another set of crimes, those under the umbrella of “medical assistance in dying” (MAID). In 2016, laws permitting state-sanctioned and doctor-assisted suicide were put in place in Canada for the terminally ill. In 2021, this practice was expanded to the non-terminally ill, including those suffering from mental illness. Doctors are required to make suicide assistance available, whatever their personal views on the practice. The province of Quebec is presently considering including seriously disabled infants in the mix of those whom doctors can kill. No one really knows how many persons have already been killed, but the number has been put at over 10,000. In “Canada’s Killing Regime,” published on First Things’ website, Jonathon Van Maren has outlined the situation with stunning clarity.
There is no settled standard for a “crime against humanity,” though most definitions share elements, one of which is coerced brutality and harm. In view of the fact that Canadian law concerns people who are clinically depressed, adolescents, and now infants, the “voluntary” aspect of “assisted” suicide is clearly illusory. “Extermination” seems an apt description.
How did we get to this dark place? One might imagine a long, step-by-step “creep,” but in fact that isn’t how it happened. It came as a converting onslaught. MAID was put in place shortly after a 2015 Supreme Court ruling said that state prohibition of assisted suicide violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Surveys indicate that in this brief period the Canadian public flipped from being largely against assisted suicide to being overwhelmingly for it. Current polls suggest that support for the legislation’s expanded reach hasn’t quite achieved majority support. But give it (a little) time.
There were warnings. Sober commentators noted that if we permit the terminally ill to get help killing themselves, we will next be permitting the less-than-terminally ill; the mentally anguished; teenagers; the disabled; children (or their guardians choosing death on their behalf). These concerns were dismissed as fearmongering. Those offering the warnings were derided as relying on the fallacy of “the slippery slope.” This is what reactionaries always argue, we were told: Open the door to one permission, and everything will automatically slide to a nadir of evil. The forces of repression have always ridden the fallacy of the slippery slope, we were told. They use it in their efforts to restrict voting rights, limit public education, and obstruct public healthcare. Ironically, when it comes to legal rights and freedoms, progressives and libertarians put the “fallacy” to work. They warn that any attempt to hem in a progressive achievement (abortion, sexual license) marks the first step in dismantling liberty across the board.
The slippery slope argument may be a logical fallacy, but it captures a sociological truth. As careful legal minds, behavioral economists, and other social scientists recognize, laws both prohibitive and permissive carry a social weight that moves public opinion, to which we need to add the fact that how laws are made—the context and social interactions involved—affects attitudes. In other words, laws etch channels of cultural expectation. This is called “path dependence” in the jargon of the trade. In no rational world are people’s behaviors and choices based solely on discrete facts.
Some slippery slopes are undeniable. Wars provide prime examples. Nations often slide into conflict rather than choosing it in a discrete moment. During conflicts, good people sometimes end up doing horrendous things. Once unleashed, violence has its own momentum. The same holds true in everyday life. More often than not, we are swept along by subtle yet powerful currents of unconscious expectation, permission, indulgence, and fear.
Christians need to take seriously the reality of well-greased slopes down which social and moral integrity can careen at a shockingly quickening pace. For slippery slopes are not just metaphors for how self-contained legal systems work and social expectations play upon the body politic. The image describes our very selves, caught in the downward-pulling reality of sin. Of all people, Christians should be alert to the threat of an engulfing extinguishment of life, fed by the many streams of our social deformations.
One of the earliest uses in English of the slippery slope was by the sixteenth-century poet Philip Sidney. He referred to the error into which “affection” can draw us. Sidney’s language relies on the central scriptural assertion that our hearts can lead us astray. Biblical slippery slopes are greased by temptation. Our desires are snared by an object, and bit by bit, or perhaps suddenly in a rush, we are enticed into consuming captivity. There are examples of implicit slippery slope arguments in Scripture—warnings against the allurements of the brothel in Proverbs 5:8 or, more extensively, calls to protect oneself from greed (see Luke 12:15). Small seeds of self-regard can grow into invasive plants, a “little leaven leavening the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9). James describes the fatal downward slide in a classic form: “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14–15).
Romans 1:18–32 outlines the great paradigm of the slippery slope. The descent begins with turning from God, whether by preferring something else to God or by failing to be thankful to God. The latter illuminates the Canadian slide toward criminal extermination of the most vulnerable. Suicide entails a final rejection of thanksgiving. Whether in the cause of Stoic honor, fear of suffering, or simple exhaustion, the voluntary ending of one’s life casts away the very thing upon which our thanksgiving to God is based: our createdness, our “being here.” “You have made me!” creation exults to God (as Augustine puts it). One cannot thank God by ending one’s life. “Do the dead praise you?” asks the Psalmist (Ps. 88:10). Disabled children and adults; emotionally tormented young people; physically and cognitively burdened individuals: They are no different from you and me in their capacity for thanks. Precisely in being experienced, even suffering is blessed by God, in some mysterious way.
Perhaps only Christians can understand this. Those for whom there is no God see a world that, if it is to be evaluated at all, will be measured only by its usefulness to this or that confected cause. Without a Creator, that which exists, including our own selves, is by default judged by us. This is the central moral claim of assisted suicide: We owe it to people to honor their judgment about whether it is better for them not to exist. Once a life’s usefulness is finished, then it is best to cast it off. And doing what is “better” takes on an obligatory character. Don’t we owe the useless the mercy of ending their lives? The mentally ill serve no purpose—away with them! Are there others who are useless to our schemes of meaning and purpose? Perhaps they should be done away with as well.
For Christians to evaluate human life that way would be blasphemy of the deepest kind, crucifying the Lord anew (Heb. 6:6). Canada’s regime of assisted suicide, which has now expanded to euthanasia, is a crime against humanity, yes; but it is even more a crime against God. Christians must resist and oppose such blasphemy, doing so with clarity of sight and bracing repentance for our tacit complicity at many stages. In so doing, however, we need to recognize that the shocking possibility of severely depressed teenagers being guided to their deaths by “caregivers” is but one example of a pattern that has taken our common culture in its grip on many fronts. The constructions of our own hearts are ever slipping, and as the rain descends, the floods come and the winds blow, the slope fast becomes a precipice, and the stumble becomes a descent—“and great is the fall of it” (Matt. 7:27).
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.