TORONTO — Physician-assisted suicide and the elimination of terminally ill or severely disabled patients run counter to the values of Canadian society, says the vice-president of the Catholic Civil Rights League.

Speaking Jan. 22 at a debate on the legalization of euthanasia, lawyer Philip Horgan said Canadians should reject efforts to change the Criminal Code to permit anti-life practices.

Horgan was opposed by Ruth von Fuchs, a librarian and a long-time executive with the Right to Die Society.

“It is my submission that a law allowing the right to die is contrary to the norms of Canadian society,” Horgan said. He dismissed the argument that the decision to de-criminalize suicide in 1971 indicated society’s acceptance of a right to die.

Horgan refuted von Fuch’s suggestions that reasoned legislative safeguards built into right-to-die legislation would prevent abuses. “The most common complaint we hear is that we couldn’t regulate the right to die,” von Fuchs told the audience. “But a step-by-step approach to such legislation would address these and other concerns.”

Horgan, however, cited the example of the Netherlands to show how efforts to promote physician-assisted suicide are open to abuses. Although doctor-assisted suicide is officially against the law in Holland, the country witnessed at least 1,000 such deaths in 1994. Horgan said these were cases where comatose or mentally incompetent patients were eliminated without their consent.

“This was a modern, sophisticated country were these deaths occurred,” Horgan said, “and there were safeguards in place. Given that Canada has about twice the population of Holland, are we prepared to accept as many as 2,000 similar deaths in this country each year?”

He also referred to the Latimer case in which a Saskatchewan farmer killed his severely handicapped daughter by poisoning her with carbon monoxide fumes. Although he was found guilty of second-degree murder, Latimer received a lenient sentence on the grounds that the killing was motivated by compassion.

Horgan suggested that compassion is not an appropriate justification for legislation allowing assisted suicide.

Instead of concentrating on right-to-die legislation, Horgan called for a greater emphasis on palliative care
and other proactive approaches to care-giving to address the needs of terminally ill or suffering patients. He cited examples in his own family where a consultative approach to the treatment of a dying relative benefited both patient and family members.

The audience, most of whom were seniors, seemed divided in their support of the two speakers. Many raised the quality-of-life argument in defending the need for some form of assisted-suicide legislation.

Horgan countered that is not appropriate for the able-bodied to impose a quality-of-life standard on the weak and suffering.

“What does it say about our culture that we attempt to avoid suffering by eliminating those who are weak, vulnerable or in pain?” he asked.