Interim Staff

The federal government’s top law enforcement official speculated about liberalizing this country’s assisted suicide laws, following the acquittal of one of Canada’s leading euthanasia activists.

On Nov. 4, Evelyn Martens, a 73-year-old euthanasia campaigner, was acquitted of charges of assisting in the suicides of two B.C. women.

Martens pleaded not guilty to the charge of aiding former nun Monique Charest, 64, and Vancouver teacher Leyanne Burchell, 57, to commit suicide. Charest suffered from a number of health complaints, including severe back pain, but was not terminally ill.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition requested that the Crown review the evidence and, if there is ample evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict her, appeal Martens’ acquittal.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the EPC, told The Interim that Martens was acquitted not because “the law isn’t effective, but because the Crown failed to prove’ its case. He said that the jury did not have to find that Martens killed Charest and Burchell, only that she provided the means for the women to kill themselves. Schadenberg believes the evidence does show that Martens did “provide the means, the bag and the helium” for the women.

Schadenberg said he is worried about the possibly precedent-setting claim by Justice Barry Davies that simply witnessing a suicide is not illegal. Previously, the law required someone witnessing an imminent suicide to intervene, even if it was just a call for help.

The EPC also has concerns about the jury’s impartiality. The Vancouver Sun reported that following the announcement of the jury’s decision, a female jurist leaned over to the defendant and whispered, “Thank you … thank you … thank you.” The Sun’s reporter has this on tape. Beverley Welsh, who represented the EPC at the trial, told The Interim that she saw the same jurist lean over to Martens “almost as if to shake her hand.” Welsh also reported seeing other subtle signs of support to the defendant, such as nods and winks, throughout the trial. Welsh said this fact alone should lead to a re-trial.

Two weeks after the jury rendered its verdict, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler told the House of Commons’ justice committee that it is time for Canada re-examine the issue of assisted suicide. He admitted it was a “serious” and “difficult” issue and that opinion is divided over whether to allow doctors to assist in the killing of their patients. “There are people who believe this is a matter of personal choice and the right to die in dignity,” he told the committee, while there are “others who feel we’ve got to protect the rights of the disabled, and this may be prejudicial.”

Cotler cited recent events, including the Martens case and the murder of Montreal playwright Charles Fariala at the hands of his mother, as justification to revisit the issue. He noted it has been a decade since the government last examined end-of-life issues. In 1995, a Senate committee recommended assisted suicide remain illegal.

Bloc Quebecois MP Richard Marceau raised the issue at the committee hearings, claiming that the public strongly favours euthanasia. Following the Martens decision, Liberal MP Keith Martin also called for euthanasia to be legalized in Canada.

As well, former justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube – a dissenter in the 1993 Supreme Court case that ruled Sue Rodriguez, a 42-year-old B.C. woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease, did not have the right to have a doctor kill her – recently wrote in Quebec City’s Le Soliel newspaper that Canada should permit physician-assisted suicide. The National Post reported Cotler has “spoken to Ms. L’Heureux-Dube, as well as with other experts.”

Schadenberg said he would not consider the former justice an “expert” on physician-assisted suicide. He said Cotler has not contacted the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition or, as far as he knows, any other anti-euthanasia group to get a pro-life perspective on the issue.

So-called right to die groups welcomed the minister’s comments. Ruth von Fuchs, president of the Right to Die Society of Canada, said the current law is too restrictive of the someone who may be interested in having assistance in killing his or herself. She said the current law “doesn’t address the real problem.”

Schadenberg said the real problem is the lack of palliative care, community support and psychiatric treatment for the terminally ill, disabled or otherwise vulnerable.

Cotler’s spokesman Denise Rudnicki later downplayed the minister’s comments, saying he “has no plan to champion a debate on assisted suicide.” She also maintained that Cotler’s words did not indicate a commitment to a public debate.

Schadenberg welcomed a debate, but only if it was “factual and not emotional.” He said advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide are adept at pulling on the heartstrings of the public and individuals’ own fears of dying. He noted that while news stories are trotting out polling data that indicates about three-quarters of Canadians support assisted-suicide, when the question includes the proviso that adequate palliative care be provided, the results are about evenly split.