Just less than a month after the legalization of euthanasia in Canada, the deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research hosted “Medical Ethics in an Age of Medically Assisted Dying and Reproductive Decisions,” their second annual summer symposium. On July 15, over 100 guests gathered at Tyndale College in Toronto to hear from a roster of speakers that included University of Windsor nursing professor Kathy Pfaff, palliative care nurse and co-founder of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition Jean Echlin, Tyndale University history professor Ian Gentles, and physician and board director of the Ontario and Canadian medical associations Shawn Whatley.
Pfaff, who kicked off the presentations for the day, exposed the power of language in framing the debate. She examined the concepts of “compassion,” “dignity,” and “a good death” and how they have been appropriated by the media. It was noted that the pro-euthanasia lobby has moved away from using “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide,” in favour of MAID or “medical assistance in dying.” (MAD or “medically-assisted dying” did not get much traction.) This commitment to euphemisms has produced headlines such as Global News’ “Woman says hospice house staff won’t let her die,” which Pfaff calls “just bizarre.”
In a talk called “Bridging the Ethics of Inflicting Death: Abortion and Assisted Suicide,” Echlin said, “inflicting death on a human being whether in the womb or nearing the end of life is the ultimate act of violence.” She shared the story of her son Thomas Andrew, who only lived for a short time after he was born. She said, “he spoke right from the heart of God and I’ve always listened.” In fact, he led Echlin to her life’s work in palliative care.
Palliative care was repeatedly touted as the superior alternative to euthanasia/assisted suicide throughout the day. It improves a patient’s quality of life, relieving pain and spiritual distress. However, even though it can cut down on health care costs as it decreases the time spent in hospitals and the number of readmissions, palliative care is supposedly not as “cost-effective” as euthanasia/assisted suicide, and 70 to 80 per cent of Canadians who could benefit from hospice palliative care do not have access to it. Echlin thinks “economics is driving this whole thing.” She cheekily called out the government’s hypocrisy. Suicide prevention is “big on the books, yet we’re offering suicide … isn’t that a lovely idea?”
She remarked that one of the flaws with Bill C-14 which became law in June is that the intolerability of a condition to a person is entirely subjective, meaning euthanasia on demand is not far away. She forecasted, “as abortion has been manipulated to include sex-selection and other wide open reasons protected by law, I see the same problem with MAID.” Gentles concurred with her, saying that the new law has “more holes in it than a chunk of Swiss cheese.” He worries that skilled lawyers will be able to get around the criteria of one’s death being “reasonably foreseeable,” for as he points out, “everyone’s death is reasonably foreseeable.” Nonetheless, Gentles did praise much of the preamble of the bill and the lobbying efforts of the dissenting Conservative minority.
Whatley wrapped up the symposium by expressing the need for conscience rights, which had been a recurring topic in many of the speakers’ presentations. Echlin said, “how dare we ask our doctors and nurses to kill us?” and asserted that referring patients for assisted suicide/euthanasia is still “complicity in the act,” thus violating the freedoms of conscience and religion protected in the Charter. Gentles worried that “it will be harder for medical practitioners to turn their backs on the culture of death” as they will have to “either leave their profession or be complicit in the taking of life.” He admitted, “I fear we are entering a dark time in our country’s history but that’s not a reason to lose hope.” He urged the audience to “burn like candles in the darkness.”
There were also presentations by the deVeber Institute’s summer interns and guest MP Harold Albrecht (CPC, Kitchener-Conestoga).
In addition to their summer symposium, the deVeber Institute holds an annual public lecture. This year’s will be held on Oct. 2. Ewan Goligher of the Toronto Western Hospital’s Krembil Research Institute will give a presentation “On Saying ‘No’: the Ethics of Conscientious Objection in Healthcare.”