The other night our kids started discussing the Robert Latimer case at the dinner table. I know where I stand on euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide generally, and I want none of either. But absolutism in such matters can seem such a heartless and cruel stance when you’re confronted with a uniquely difficult and agonizing case.

Agonizing choice

And Robert latimer’s murder of his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy – a chronic sufferer of cerebral palsy who was scheduled to undergo more painful surgery on the very day that her father was charged with her murder – was certainly a difficult and agonizing case.

The motives for such lethal acts of compassion can indeed be mixed and it is right that any case of this kind should be subjected to the utmost legal scrutiny. Kids might bump off parents to get their hands on an inheritance. Spouses might hasten their partners’ end to settle old grudges or free them up for a new dalliance. I’m far from alone in suspecting that Dr. Jack Kevorkian is driven in his grisly work by something more twisted and base than a mere desire to help others.

It’s harder to entertain suspicions about a murderous parent’s motives. Watching my kids endure physical travails as minor as tonsillectomies and ear infections, I was tormented by my inability to do anything to lessen their pain. Enormously magnifying that torment to the kind of scale which applied in the Latimer household, I was reluctant to suspect the motives of a father who simply couldn’t bear to let his child’s suffering continue for another instant.

But my kids had no such qualms about suspecting him; bearing out G.K. Chesterton’s assertion in an essay about the no-nonsense morality of fairy tales: “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” When my kids asked me what I thought about Latimer’s sentence for killing Tracy, I found I couldn’t look them in the eyes and spew some hand-washing cliché like, “Well, it’s not for me to pass judgment in a case where there was so much suffering.”

I couldn’t speak such drivel because no right-thinking child, hungry for life on any terms, can bear to hear it. Item number one in the unwritten parent-child contract is a pledge to always and unconditionally support and affirm the child’s right to life, even and particularly during – those temporary times of extreme duress when the child cannot.

Exception for Latimer?

The more I learn about the circumstances in the Latimer case, the less convinced I am that Tracy’s murder should be treated any differently than any other case of murder. There is a popular assumption that Robert and Laura Latimer were struggling to cope as Tracy’s only caregivers when, in fact, Tracy had been living in a full-time respite home in North Battleford, Saskatchewan from July until early October of 1993 – about three weeks before she was murdered. On October 12 of that year – 12 days before her murder – Robert and Laura Latimer were offered a permanent institutional placement for Tracy.

Joe Woodard writes in the November 24 issue of Alberta Report, that “evidence in Latimer’s second trial from his wife’s own diary showed that 12-year-old Tracy had been cheerful, responsive and improving in her health in the weeks prior to her murder.

And Latimer’s carbon-monoxide gassing of his daughter in his truck cab, during which he watched her twitch as she died, indicated a calculated solution to what he earlier called “our problem.” However, the court was not allowed to hear of Latimer’s 1974 trial in the forcible rape of a 15-year-old girl, since his jury conviction was nullified on a technicality.

Fear among disabled

Mr. Justice E.G. Noble’s innovative sentence of “Two years minus one day” for second degree murder means that Robert Latimer, though legally confined to his farm for a further 20 or so months, could be out planting crops this spring if the sentence is not overturned on appeal.

Disabled spokespeople have expressed fear at the implications of the broad popular approval of Robert Latimer’s sentence. Whether we’re talking about murder or victim-supported euthanasia, popular sentiment is shifting to the view that some human lives are intrinsically worth less than others and that snuffing them out can be an understandable, even a perfectly reasonable prerogative.

In 1994 the Canadian Supreme Court voted 5-4 to deny Sue Rodriguez’ request for a physician’s assistance to end her life. Since then two of the denying judges – Gerard LaForest and John Sopinka – have respectively, retired and died.

We all know which way it’s going to go next time, so I guess we’d better warn our kids. See if you can look them in the eyes when you do.

(Herman Goodden is a London, Ontario based writer).