As the legalization of assisted suicide gets debated, all levels of government in Canada are supporting suicide prevention programs. On Dec. 14, 2012, Private Member’s Bill C-300 sponsored by Conservative MP Harold Albrecht (Kitchener-Conestoga) was signed into law. It calls on the establishment on a Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention. In 2011, the Toronto Transit Commission launched “Crisis Link,” a campaign in subway stations consisting of anti-suicide signs and special phones linked to crisis lines staffed by the Distress Centres of Toronto. Nunavut has its own anti-suicide strategy action plan expiring at the end of March intending to deal with the territory’s “suicide crisis.”
Suicide became an issue of political significance with the death of Christopher Peloso, George Smitherman’s legal husband who was reported to have killed himself because of depression. This prompted former Liberal Party interim leader and Ontario premier Bob Rae to pen an editorial in the Globe and Mail at the end of December advocating for a national suicide prevention strategy. Less than two months later, the federal Liberals passed a resolution at their convention calling for the legalization of assisted suicide.
Quebec has also been involved in suicide prevention. This is the province where Bill 52 legalizing euthanasia was introduced by the government (it died in March when the Parti Quebecois government headed by Pauline Marois called an election). From February 2 to 8, the province recognized “National Suicide Prevention Week.” The event received widespread coverage in Quebec media. The previous year, the provincial Minister of Health and Social Services at the time, Réjean Hébert, announced that the province will establish a suicide database, create an annual awareness campaign, and improve a suicide prevention hot line as well as Quebec’s system of “sentinels” (individuals meant to guide people dealing with suicide to the appropriate resources).
So why the double standard? There is “an essential prejudice around people with disabilities and terminal illnesses,” Mark Pickup told The Interim. Pickup is the author of the Human Life Matters blog and quadriplegic due to multiple sclerosis. The message from society, according to Pickup is that “there are some lives worth less than others.”
Pickup brought up the fact that, like Bill 52 in Quebec, abortion came to Canada through the Morgentaler facility in Montreal. In 1969, justice minister John Turner assured MPs that therapeutic abortion committees would be good safeguards to limit abortions. Pickup was informed by physicians practicing at the time, however, that these in effect rubber stamped any abortion procedure. If the lives of the youngest did not receive protection, he said, then why would it be available for “people like me?”
“The double standard arises from the ubiquitous belief that life with a disability is a fate worse than death,” said Amy Hasbrouck, director of Toujours Vivant-Not Dead Yet, to The Interim in an email interview. “People with disabilities are devalued, and lack the necessary supports to fully participate in society. This diminishes our quality of life, and leads many people to despair and want to die. This response is seen as a rational choice, based on the circumstances, so while non-disabled people who show suicidal feelings are discouraged from killing themselves, disabled people are helped to do so.”
Suicide is already being accepted as an option for additional groups of people. “A commission in the Netherlands determined that the current rules permit people who are over 70 years of age and who are ‘tired of life’ have the right to euthanasia,” said Hasbrouck. “Though the movement for assisted suicide is driven by upper-middle class white people who fear becoming disabled, the people whose lives are taken by back-room euthanasia are typically poor, disabled and friendless people who have no other resources.”
In the academic community, a distinction has already arisen between “rational” and “irrational” suicide. If a person commits a “rational” suicide, he or she was able to accurately evaluate his or her situation and came to the decision without being impacted by mental illness or distress. The suicide should be committed for a reason that most people would understand. In a 2006 article for the Weekly Standard, Wesley Smith cited the University of Utah’s bioethicist Margaret Pabst Battin, who said that “suicide can be rationally chosen” to “avoid pain and suffering in terminal illness,” or could be a “self-sacrifice for altruistic reasons” or for “honor and principle.”
In a 1997 cover story for the Hastings Center Report, philosopher John Hardwig argued that there is a “duty to die” when “continuing to live will impose significant burdens – emotional burdens, extensive caregiving, destruction of life plans, and yes, financial hardship – on your family and loved ones … To have reached the age of say, seventy-five or eighty years without being ready to die is itself a moral failing, the sign of a life out of touch with life’s basic realities.”
How can a more positive attitude towards the disabled and terminally ill be fostered? Hasbrouck believes that the first step to take is “to see disability as a natural and normal part of the human experience.” People with disabilities should also be provided with good health care and accessibility services so they could remain active in the community.
According to Pickup, government can ensure that palliative medicine and respect for the value of life be taught in medical schools and nursing programs. Individuals can form groups to support community members dealing with disability. Churches may also form ministries centred on caring for the disabled. After all, the decision comes down to accepting either the costs of providing good care to the vulnerable or the cost of giving lethal injection, which “will compromise our very humanity.”