Years ago, while covering the case of Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer who killed his disabled daughter in cold blood, a columnist observed: “A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.” This incisive observation cuts to the heart of the contradiction in Canada’s current debate about euthanasia: when uttered by an otherwise healthy person who is suffering from depression, the desire to die is deemed to be a symptom needing treatment; but when the same wish is expressed by someone with a disability or a terminal illness, the requestsuddenly becomes a sober judgment to be taken seriously, and not the painful result of a desperate illusion to be quickly, forcefully, and unambiguously dispelled.
In February, Quebec marked its 24th annual Suicide Prevention Week even as Bill 52, which would legalize both euthanasia and assisted suicide, remained before the National Assembly.
This legislation is couched in soothing, reassuring caveats, pretending to apply only to those with “incurable illnesses” or “physical or psychological suffering.” But the angel of death is not so easily constrained: once medical murder has any habitus among the living, criteria of this kind will offer little protection against the fatal attitude that such inhumane practices produce. a therapy recommended to those enduring that long disease called life.
No, such precautions cannot possibly prevent the inexorable growth of the category of the condemned because, in the long run, we all belong to this group; as the novelist Victor Hugo put it, “we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve.” And yet, the indefinitely deferred death sentence under which we all live in no way diminishes our dignity. Even the ancients recognized this truth: mortals were the only beings in an immortal universe who, with their counted days, cut through the unending cycles of the cosmos, to become worthy of remembrance through their noble deeds. In a society imbued with charity, however, every human life becomes worthy of such honour because, even in weakness, sickness, or advanced age, man’s sacred dignity endures. But when mortal life loses its meaning, even death loses its dignity – although its sting must still remain.
The bad laws which are born from hard cases always impair our ability to see the thousands of abuses – no less heart-rending – which such unjust laws produce. Like unborn children in the womb, the disabled, the sick, and the elderly will soon become expendable. And, like a currency debased by counterfeiting, the value of all life will plummet.
On a Sunday morning in 1993, Robert Latimer ran a hose from his truck’s exhaust into its cab, and suffocated his own daughter while the rest of his family was at church. Like an injured animal draining its owner’s budget, Tracy was put to death – and her father was justly punished like the murderer he was. If, however, euthanasia and assisted suicide become legal in Canada, Latimer will be owed an pardon – and carbon monoxide, hemlock, and cyanide must be rebranded as medicines.