As a young man, Alex Schadenberg travelled the country promoting the culture of life. His parents, Harry and Mary Schadenberg, were pioneers in Canada’s pro-life movement. During his first year of university, Alex was elected the national youth president of the Canadian Youth Pro-Life Organization. In giving his talks across the country, he rubbed shoulders with Canada’s pro-lifers from all walks of life. After meeting Pope John Paul II in Rome at an international conference on the family, Schadenberg felt inspired to write an explanation of pro-life teaching that the average reader would find accessible.
Toward a Culture of Life was released in 1996 and sold about 5,000 copies. Readers found the 84-page book short, easy to read, and modestly priced at $5. “I wanted the reader to understand the message of the culture of life,” Schadenberg tells The Interim. “The language was very simple and accessible, without compromising orthodoxy.”
Toward a Culture of Life drew heavily from Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) as well as other Catholic documents promoting openness to life, sexual morality, marriage and the family. The book was well-received by Canada’s pro-life community. Some churches ordered copies for each of their members.
Schadenberg’s day job as director of the Roman Catholic Diocese of London’s pro-life office allowed him plenty of opportunity to promote the book. “It was a different time,” Schadenberg says. “The Catholic church had the budget to hire lay employees and Bishop Sherlock allowed me to travel the country doing pro-life work. I was very fortunate to work under his direction.”
Like most right-to-life activists at the time, Schadenberg devoted the bulk of his time to opposing abortion, while promoting the message that life begins at conception. Yet, a dark trend was threatening to emerge at the other end of the human lifecycle. Sue Rodriguez had just committed suicide with the help of Svend Robinson and an anonymous physician. Prime minister Chretien was pushing a free vote on euthanasia.
“Like most pro-lifers at the time,” says Schadenberg, “my focus was abortion. But here, everything I’m hearing about at my talks and in the media is euthanasia. So, I started speaking out about euthanasia.”
Schadenberg resigned his position with the London diocese. He began to devote himself full-time to raising awareness about the dangers of euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. He helped found the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario, which later grew into the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada.
By this time, Schadenberg was married to his college sweetheart Susan and had several children. The two had met at the University of Western Ontario’s King’s College during Alex’s tenure as CYPLO president. She had been curious as to the cause of Alex’s frequent travels. “She kept good notes,” Alex explains. “She had a kind personality and was pretty.” Their friendship blossomed into a romance and the two were married a year after their first date. Alex would eventually graduate with a B.A. in history.
One of their children has a minor form of autism, which has given Alex added insight into the plight of the vulnerable. “We often find ourselves fighting for his right to receive the same treatment as other children,” says Alex.
The decision to leave the diocesan pro-life office was difficult. Alex was forced to consider financial support for his young family. Fortunately, Campaign Life Coalition, the diocese and several individual donors came forward and offered to pay his wage. “It was a blessing,” says Schadenberg, “but nonetheless it was a big decision to step out. We started with nothing.”
Alex had several goals in mind when he founded the coalition. The first was to “preserve and enforce legal prohibitions and ethical guidelines prohibiting ‘mercy killing.’” Another was “to increase public awareness of hospice and palliative care.” The coalition also fulfills an educational role, informing people about the social dangers of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
In so doing, Schadenberg shares some chilling facts about the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon. For example, while all assisted suicides must be reported, the system is self-reporting. Therefore, one cannot be sure whether or not a doctor has abused the system. “Nobody is going to report that they abused the system,” says Schadenberg.
Additionally, he raises the problem of overzealous doctors. There were 246 cases of doctor-assisted suicide reported in Oregon prior to last year. “One doctor was responsible for over 100 of those cases,” Schadenberg says. The silver lining is that few doctors are assisting with suicide, but this does not negate the dark cloud that some doctors show more enthusiasm toward the practice than others.
Schadenberg mentions the example of an elderly woman in Oregon who was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She and her daughter visited the woman’s doctor. He felt uncomfortable with the situation and refused to prescribe the drugs to end the woman’s life. “He noted she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and wasn’t capable of making a decision for herself,” Alex says. “He also wrote in his journal that he didn’t know who wanted it more, the woman or her daughter.”
The woman’s daughter, then, with the assistance of a pro-euthanasia organization, contacted a second doctor who was much more comfortable with the procedure. He prescribed the drugs requested by the woman to commit suicide, although he too stated his uncertainty as to whether the woman’s daughter wanted it more than the woman. “But he obviously wasn’t as concerned about it since he wrote the prescription,” Alex says.
The incident clearly shows the danger euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide pose to society. “The reality is that you cannot protect a vulnerable person from abuse of the system because the person is vulnerable,” says Alex. “They are very vulnerable in their state when making this type of decision. Sometimes, an individual needs protection from themself. This is why the laws against suicide are in place.”