A woman with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, recently died by assisted suicide in Canada. While this in and of itself may not be shocking, what has created headlines is where the death took place: inside the sanctuary of her church.
Churchill Park United Church of Winnipeg held what they called a “crossing over ceremony,” where 86-year-old church member Betty Sanguin was killed. The leadership team for Churchill Park unanimously approved her request. It is reportedly the first instance in Manitoba where an assisted suicide has taken place in a church.
Rev. Dawn Rolke, minister of Churchill Park, told the Christian Post that it was appropriate for one of their members to undergo assisted suicide in the church as it is “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,” Rolke explained. “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.”
Rolke led the ceremony inside the sanctuary, which had its normal seating arrangement taken out. Sanguin sat in a recliner while people said their goodbyes. At 1:00, Sanguin was given her lethal injection, and she died an hour later. “The children and some grandchildren went back into the sanctuary to be with Betty,” Rolke said. “And people began to quietly come and go from Betty’s side as the medicine took effect. It was like a wake. 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.”
According to interviews with Sanguin’s family with the Winnipeg Free Press, it was not an issue of dying painfully that plagued Sanguin. It was the loss of autonomy and the inability to enjoy life the way she had before. “(Knowing that) she couldn’t feed herself anymore was something she couldn’t tolerate. She stopped being able to eat and enjoy food at all,” one of her daughters said. “She didn’t want to be dependent on others or be cared for 24-7. That would’ve been intolerable for my mom.”
Yet not everyone agreed with Churchill Park’s decision to participate in the assisted suicide of one of their parishioners.
CARE, a Christian charity, has repeatedly spoken out against assisted suicide, and James Mildred, Director of Communications and Engagement for CARE, called it troubling. “The fact that a church in Canada has endorsed the practice of assisted suicide is deeply troubling… I can honestly say that it is my clear conviction that God’s word is clear on this matter,” he told Premier Christian News. “Time and again, the Bible teaches us that our lives are in God’s hands, and we are not to murder or be involved in helping someone kill themselves. The prescription of lethal drugs is not an appropriate response to suffering. It is deeply harmful: to people who suffer in the process itself; to relatives who watch on and are laden with guilt and pain afterwards; and to society as a whole.”
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