Gordon Self

May 28, 2012

On May 17, the Alberta March for Life event was held in Edmonton. I participated as a representative of Covenant Health. From the steps of the Legislature, I offered this selection of comments in solidarity with the marginalized, in particular those living with addictions and mental illness, a frequently overlooked and underserved population.

As a Catholic health care organization, I can state unequivocally that Covenant Health is "for life." Every day in our labour and delivery units, for example, we assist mothers with the safe delivery of their newborns, a life that began at conception. In fact, one in six babies in Alberta are born in Covenant Health facilities.

The Misericordia Sisters, one of our nine founding congregations of Catholic sisters to whom the province gave tribute last fall with the beautiful statue on the Legislature grounds, were especially focused on caring for unwed mothers.

In keeping with this ministry, our organization is exploring the possibility of establishing two newborn safe havens to help prevent unsafe abandonment of babies in back alleys or dumpsters.


Along with our women's health and pediatric programs, we also promote a culture of life with our quality palliative and end-of-life programs. Despite the current B.C. and Quebec court challenges lobbying for euthanasia and assisted suicide, we serve hundreds of people each year with utmost compassion, providing counter witness that we neither hasten nor prolong death.

Neither do we abandon people at the end of life with ineffective symptom and pain management support, nor deny timely access to pastoral care. Rather, when Covenant Health appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care in Ottawa, and toured with a founding committee co-chair at the Mel Miller Hospice and the Grey Nuns tertiary palliative care unit, the member of Parliament praised our facilities and the regional, integrative model with our service partners for the rest of Canada to adopt.


Covenant Health is also working to redress the issue of elder abuse, a growing epidemic that is no less an assault on the dignity of individuals. Here, too, our clinicians and collaborators have shown unwavering commitment for respecting the life and dignity of the elderly.

Both at the beginning and end of life, then, Covenant Health affirms the intrinsic dignity of every human being as a child of God, who must be protected, treasured and honoured.

But in between conception and natural death there is a whole continuum of life that demands our equal attention and proportionate advocacy. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin coined the phrase "a consistent ethic of life," meaning that we should see the same applied ethics whether we are defending the unborn in the uterus, or supporting the murderer on death row.

Both are children of God.

A consistent ethic of life requires us to affirm the dignity of all persons, including those whose lifestyle may not pull quite so strong at our heart strings. Admittedly, many of us will be moved by images of a fetus in utero sucking their thumb long before a homeless person panhandling.

There are some who find the graphic images of aborted fetuses shocking and undermining of human dignity. I share those views. But no less graphic are the images of the addict whose behaviour and appearance may equally confront our sensibilities.

A consistent ethic of life calls us to impart the same loving gaze to the homeless person or addict we might encounter this very afternoon while we march the streets of Edmonton as we do others.

Jesus showed again and again a fathomless love for those whom society otherwise despised or considered unclean. Recently I toured with an ethics colleague on Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, spending some time talking and meeting such marginalized persons ravaged by drugs.

Later this month we are co-hosting Dr. Gabor Maté in support of Covenant Health's 40 bed facility we will build in Lethbridge to care for those who struggle with homelessness and other complex health needs, including addiction. Maté's clinical work reminds us that drug seeking behaviour is driven to numb unimaginable pain in their lives, often attributed to childhood trauma and abuse.


Yet, despite being victims themselves, how often do we fail to embrace a consistent ethic of life, knowing there lurks in the corner of our hearts a Not-in-My-Backyard attitude? Test if there is some truth to this as we walk downtown this afternoon, perceiving images, sights and smells that may be very different from the neighbourhoods from which many of us hail.

The Alberta March for Life is a walk of solidarity in support for all those victims of marginalization and abuse. We all have a role to play, channeling our gifts in service of all God's people whom we are called to serve. Thank you to the organizers, speakers and participants who advocate for a "consistent ethic of life."

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at