Where are we now? Where do we go?
This article is written to establish the current concerns related to the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide and the direction in which we must turn in order to reverse the trend toward giving physicians the right to intentionally and directly cause the deaths of their patients.
In Canada, the debate surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide has been growing for many years. In 1993, Sue Rodriguez, a woman with ALS, asked the Supreme Court of Canada to give her physician the right to assist in her suicide. Even today, the euthanasia lobby attaches their campaign to Sue Rodriguez and her false assertion that allowing her physician to be directly and intentionally involved in causing her death in some way would have advanced her autonomy.
The Supreme Court of Canada rejected the Rodriguez request, but only by a 5-4 margin, leaving the case open to future court actions that may reverse this decision that protected the lives of all vulnerable Canadians.
Last year, Robert Latimer received permission to obtain early parole from his conviction for the second-degree murder of his daughter Tracy. Latimer killed Tracy by asphyxiation because he considered her supposed suffering to be inhumane.
Parliament is now debating Bill C-384, a private member’s bill that is sponsored by MP Francine Lalonde (Bloc Québécois) and would legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada. This is Lalonde’s third such attempt, with her first two dying on the order paper when elections were called in 2004 and 2005.
Bill C-384 would legalize euthanasia by amending Section 222 (homicide) of the Criminal Code and would legalize assisted suicide by amending Section 241 (assisted suicide) of the Code.
Euthanasia is a type of homicide because it involves one person (usually a physician) directly and intentionally killing another person, usually by lethal injection. Every person of good will should be concerned about an act that would allow physicians to directly and intentionally cause the deaths of their patients.
Section 241 of the Criminal Code prohibits a person from aiding, abetting or counselling suicide, whether death occurs or not. Bill C-384 would give medical practitioners the right to be directly and intentionally involved in causing the deaths of their patients. Even though assisted suicide is similar to suicide, it differs by the fact that another person is involved in the act, thereby creating issues around influence and the ability of a nation to protect its most vulnerable citizens.
Members of Parliament are stating their opposition to C-384 for many different reasons. A large group of MPs oppose it because they oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide for any reason.
Another group opposes it because they are concerned about the rights of people with disabilities and other vulnerable Canadians. These MPs are suggesting they will not support C-384, or any other similar initiative, until people with disabilities and other vulnerable Canadians are properly supported within society.
A third and similar group of MPs opposes C-384 because they want Canada to first improve palliative care. These MPs believe it is premature to debate the issue of when a physician may cause the death of a person at a time when many people continue to lack access to quality end-of-life care.
Last November, the Quebec College of Physicians announced its support for the legalization of euthanasia. What is particularly concerning about this move is the reasoning employed for the decision.
The Quebec College stated euthanasia needs to be legalized in limited circumstances to protect physicians who use large doses of analgesics for the treatment of pain and to protect physicians when they terminally sedate patients who are suffering.
Since the proper use of pain management drugs and the proper use of sedation is not euthanasia, the Quebec College of Physicians appears to be stating that euthanasia needs to be legalized to protect physicians who actually abuse the use of sedation and analgesics.
It is important to note the euthanasia lobby’s claim that the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide are about offering greater “choice” at the end-of-life. The fact is that in the context of euthanasia and assisted suicide, the choice argument is a fallacy.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal because they require another person, usually a physician, to be directly and intentionally involved in causing death. This means that it is not about the choice a person makes to kill himself, but rather, it is about the choice a person makes to cause another’s death.
The United States
In the U.S., assisted suicide is dealt with on a state-by-state basis.
Oregon legalized assisted suicide in 1997 after a referendum that approved the Death with Dignity Act there. Oregon has been hailed as a well-controlled system that allows assisted suicide under limited circumstances without problems related to abuse. The truth is that the euthanasia lobby, under the leadership of the lobby group Compassion & Choices, controls the mechanism of the assisted-suicide law in Oregon. For instance, in 2008, there were 60 reported assisted suicide deaths in Oregon, with 53 of them having been facilitated by Compassion & Choices.
It is difficult to uncover abuses in Oregon since Compassion & Choices controls the information and content of physicians’ reports.
The stories of Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup caused a stir in Oregon last year and nearly resulted in the defeat of the cause to legalize assisted suicide in a referendum in Washington state.
Wagner and Stroup were both living with cancer and dependent on the state medical plan for their medical treatments. Both of them received letters from Oregon Medicare denying them access to beneficial medical treatment for their conditions, but instead offering only assisted suicide or palliative care.
The concept that legalizing assisted suicide offers Oregonians more choice at the end of life is a lie. When people are told they do not qualify for beneficial medical treatments, but instead qualify for assisted suicide, then they are not really being offered a choice.
Washington became the second state to legalize assisted suicide when voters approved the Death with Dignity Act in a referendum in November 2008. Compassion & Choices gathered its financial resources in the United States and raised nearly $6 million, outspending the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide by a 4-to-1 ratio.
We have very little information about the workings of the assisted suicide law in Washington state, since it only began in March 2009 and since, like Oregon, Compassion & Choices has once again become a facilitator of the law.
In December 2008, Judge Dorothy McCarter, by judicial fiat, made Montana the third state to legalize assisted suicide in the U.S. In a case brought forward by Compassion & Choices, McCarter stated that privacy provisions in the Montana state constitution guaranteed the right to assisted suicide in Montana.
The attorney-general in Montana then referred McCarter’s decision to the Montana Supreme Court, which this past Dec. 31 stated that there was no constitutional right to assisted suicide in Montana. However, the majority decision also declared that there were no laws in Montana that actually prohibited physician-assisted suicide. As sad as the defeat in Montana was, the fact is that the Supreme Court’s decision can be reversed simply by drafting a new law prohibiting assisted suicide in Montana.
In 2009, the issue of assisted suicide was one of the most active social issues in the United States. There were 10 states that faced either legislative or legal attempts to legalize the practice. A Compassion & Choices court case in Connecticut and legislative proposals in Hawaii, Vermont and Pennsylvania are still active.
There were also significant victories in 2009. Every legislative proposal to legalize assisted suicide was either defeated or delayed. A recent victory in New Hampshire was particularly uplifting, since a proposed bill was soundly defeated by a vote of 242-113. The New Hampshire bill was similar to the Oregon Act. The legislation was effectively defeated by proving that assisted suicide is a recipe for elder abuse and demonstrating that the “choice” claim is a lie.
Victories also occurred in France and the U.K., where proposed assisted suicide legislation was defeated. The U.K. now faces a problem related to the wording of assisted suicide prosecution guidelines. New prosecution guidelines, if unchanged, will make it very difficult to prosecute a person who assists a suicide, except in the worst cases. In Switzerland, the government is planning to have a referendum in Zurich on the issue of “death tourism.” The government would like to stop the Dignitas suicide clinics from assisting in the suicides of foreign tourists.
Margo MacDonald, a Scottish parliamentarian, has introduced a bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide with language that is imprecise and dangerous. If passed, the End of Life Assistance Bill will legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in Scotland for people with disabilities, people with chronic conditions, or people with terminal conditions.
In the Act “end of life assistance” means assistance, including the provision (assisted suicide) or administration (euthanasia) of appropriate means, to enable a person to die with minimum distress, or what the bill refers to as “dignity.”
The bill essentially grants a blank cheque to kill people with disabilities, chronic conditions or terminally ill. MacDonald has attempted to create the appearance of strict safeguards. But as Peter Saunders, director of the Care Not Killing Alliance in the United Kingdom has noted, the bill is “coy,” pointing out: “It doesn’t spell what sort of ‘end-of-life assistance’ a ‘designated practitioner’ may provide. Is it assisted suicide (where the person takes prescribed lethal drugs) or euthanasia (where the doctor gives a lethal injection)? The vague wording actually covers both.”
The bill’s provisions would extend beyond the terminally ill to anyone “permanently physically incapacitated to such an extent as not to be able to live independently.” MacDonald say her bill would lead to no more than 50 deaths a year, but Saunders suggests that the “Dutch experience suggests that the number could be as many as 1,500.”
In 2010, the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition will face significant challenges in Canada. The prorogation of Parliament has delayed the vote on Bill C-384 until June. At the same time, the Quebec Legislative Assembly has established a 20-member committee to research and write a report on euthanasia and assisted suicide.
We also expect more legislative proposals to legalize assisted suicide will be introduced in several states in the U.S.
On the American federal scene, President Barack Obama will continue to promote health care reform that includes proposals to promote the introduction of death panels. The section of the health care reform package that concerns end-of-life care was written by Compassion & Choices, the leading euthanasia lobby group in the world.
People need to wake up and smell the coffee. Euthanasia and assisted suicide will be the most important social issues of the next decade. And we have entered that decade.
All people of good will need to become informed and active if we are to effectively oppose the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada. The way to do that is to become a member of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition and work with us to stop the growth of the culture of death.
We also need to change ourselves. The fact is that many people fear suffering and dying in pain. The greatest pain that people experience is the feelings of abandonment, loneliness and despair while suffering from difficult symptoms. Our society has never had the amount of resources we have today and we have also never had the amount of loneliness, abandonment and despair that we have today.
People of good will need to go into their communities and be with or care for others. The greatest gift you can give to another person is the gift of yourself.
Every church needs to re-assess its commitment to the vulnerable in its community. Is the church community truly being a sign of hope by caring for the needs of others in the community?
Every person needs to re-assess his or her commitment to the vulnerable in the community. We need to recognize that the world will not change until we change ourselves.
Alex Schadenberg is executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.