Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic reform in the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a most extraordinary Canadian. His rare, courageous and enterprising triumph over extreme adversity has now been recounted in a gripping biography by Linda McIntosh, What Do You Do If You Don’t Die: The Stephen Fletcher Story.
Fletcher’s life nearly came to an abrupt end on January 11, 1996. As a young engineer, he was driving to a mine that morning on a slush-covered road through the wilderness north of Winnipeg, when he suddenly swerved to avoid a moose calf only to plough into a gigantic moose. The enormous crash left him as a quadriplegic, completely paralyzed below the neck.
Prior to this calamity, Fletcher had been an ardent outdoorsman and Manitoba kayaking champion. After having come to realize that he would probably never again be able to move either his arms or legs, he was profoundly devastated and deeply depressed. McIntosh relates: “The recognition that he wasn’t in the throes of some unspeakable nightmare or fear-filled, psychotic episode, that he was living in a hell from which there would be no escape, stirred in his soul a deep and passionate yearning for death.”
With the vital assistance of a devoted family and friends, Fletcher managed over several months to overcome this suicidal depression. Eventually, after spending close to a year in the hospital, he got himself established in his own home with the aid of around-the-clock health-care attendants and resolved to enroll in a master of business administration program at the University of Manitoba.
Initially, his application was rejected. But after persistent inquiries, he persuaded university authorities to allow him to take the General Masters Admissions Test with the assistance of a scribe in March 1997. Fletcher’s next step was to get the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation to provide funding for a student assistant to turn the pages of books and take notes at his dictation.
By dint of such perseverance, Fletcher passed the admissions test with flying colours and went on to complete his MBA on time. Meanwhile, with the assistance of a younger brother, he got himself elected to two terms as president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union.
Given these amazing accomplishments, it’s hardly surprising that Fletcher has gone on to a successful career in federal politics. Yet, he is fortunate just to be alive. Still, he has confided: “If I had had the option of euthanasia in the first two years after my accident, I probably would have taken it. Not probably — I would have.”
It might be supposed that Fletcher now opposes euthanasia, but not so. “In a way, I contradict myself,” he admits, while insisting that committing assisted suicide “would have been a perfectly reasonable thing to do.”
That is incorrect. While it is understandable that Fletcher yearned for death after having been grievously crippled, it would have been not “perfectly reasonable,” but entirely wrong for him to have given way to that impermanent feeling of despair. His public service as a quadriplegic over the past 12 years testifies to the evil of euthanasia.
Consider the views of Alison Davis, national co-ordinator for No Less Human, a British charity that advocates for the disabled. Now aged 50, she was born with severe spinal bifida, is confined to a wheelchair, doubly incontinent and sometimes wracked with crippling, uncontrollable pain. During 10 years of despair, she made several serious attempts to commit suicide, but was saved by friends and treated against her will.
Like Fletcher, Davis eventually recovered the will to live. Unlike him, she is implacably opposed to euthanasia. She observes: “Once it is established that it is acceptable to cause the death of a disabled or ill person if s/he requests it, no disabled or ill person is safe.”
Davis is surely right. Let us hope and pray that Fletcher will soon also come to understand that the legalization of euthanasia would be a calamity, especially for the very handicapped people he is eager to help.