Experts from Canada and the U.S. gather to reflect and plan strategy

Those bracing themselves for a downer were surprised to discover a recent euthanasia symposium remarkably upbeat.

One audience member asked what the future could hold for her five-year-old nephew who lives with cerebral palsy. Without missing a beat, disability activist and quadriplegic Catherine Frazee replied, “He could become Prime Minister.”

Disability and pro-life activists joined forces on April 28, in London, Ontario. The presence of the disabled community both on the podium and in the audience provided a constant reality check.

Bonnie Quesnel, who powered her motorized scooter to the conference, asked if other disabled persons were routinely asked to sign “Do Not Resuscitate” orders when they entered hospital. She quickly discovered it was a standard request of the disabled but not of the able-bodied. Dr. Barrie deVeber, the president of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, a co-sponsor of the symposium, strongly advised the disabled not to enter hospital without an advocate.

Tracy Latimer’s murder at the hands of her father in 1993 galvanized the disabled community. At least seven mercy killings have been committed in Canada since Latimer killed Tracy, none of which has resulted in any jail time.

“It’s really important that Tracy’s father serves his full time, that justice prevails,” said Anne Murphy, who lives with the neuromuscular disorder Friedricks Ataxia. “Otherwise we aren’t worth much. It decreases the value of our lives. Latimer’s action just reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t be sick, we shouldn’t impose a burden, we should all be materialistically productive.”

The conference boasted three eminent speakers: Dr. John Patrick, professor of biochemistry and pediatrics at the University of Ottawa, Catherine Frazee, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission from 1989-1992 and attorney Wesley J. Smith, a consultant for the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force and author of Forced Exit and The Culture of Death.

Wesley Smith

Wesley Smith has filed amicus briefs on behalf of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force opposing the legalization of assisted suicide in the United States Supreme Court. Smith focused on the murderous shift in bioethics from sanctity of life ethics to quality of life ethics.

Sanctity of life ethics (SLE) recognizes the equal, inherent moral worth of each human being and as such is objective and nondiscriminatory.

In sharp contrast, quality of life ethics (QLE) holds that some human beings have more and some less worth than others. QL ethicists believe there is nothing special about being a human being; we are merely organic entities. QLE promotes the idea that not all humans are persons; that there is such a thing as a human non-person.

If the same language and reasoning were used about Jews or blacks or women, such ethics would be considered racist or sexist and the proponent labelled a bigot. Indeed, Smith maintains that such QL ethicists are bigots. It becomes a matter of “Whom can we kill and get a good night’s sleep?”

One such QL bioethicist, Peter Singer, would consider “self-awareness” and “moral accountability for one’s actions” as two necessary criteria for personhood. Thus Singer would deem newborn infants, Alzheimer patients, and the cognitively disabled as nonpersons.

“The hubris, the arrogance to say that a human being isn’t a person!” exclaimed Smith. “Do you believe there is such a thing as a human nonperson?”

Smith is sounding the alarm that such views are not held by a radical fringe but by mainstream bioethicists who are writing our health care policies, laws and textbooks.

“Once it is OK to kill one person for one reason, it will be OK to kill hundreds of people for hundreds of reasons.”

Smith maintained that Robert Latimer has already received mercy since he committed premeditated murder, yet was charged not with first-degree murder (which usually warrants a 25-year sentence) but only second-degree murder (and a ten-year sentence).

Smith noted the chilling contrast between the public outrage when American Susan Smith drowned her two “normal” children and was jailed for first-degree murder with the public sympathy for Robert Latimer who killed his disabled daughter and whose act was called “altruistic” by one judge hearing the case.

“There is a profound moral crisis in Canada,” contended Smith. “Robert Latimer put Tracy out of Robert Latimer’s misery. No one is [Jack] Kevorkian bait. No one is disposable,” emphasized Smith to the cheers of the disabled activists.

Smith also warned that the concept of “futile care” has been pushed by bioethicists far beyond its original definition. Futile care rightly means that an earache should not be treated by kidney removal nor should an ulcer be treated with chemotherapy. A physician shouldn’t order a treatment he or she knows will not be effective.

But futile care for QL ethicists now means withdrawing treatment because it is effective; it does work. Smith explained, “It is not the care that is futile but the patient. So the argument that euthanasia was all about autonomy is wrong. It never was about autonomy.”

According to QLE futile care protocol, even if the patient or his family wants a ventilator left on, the doctor can order it removed. Smith referred to such doctors who do not respect patient or family wishes as “medical fascists.” He cited documents that revealed even Catholic hospitals in the United States were overriding patient and family wishes and were withdrawing treatment as part of their futile care protocol.

“The quality of life leads to the culture of death because death is viewed as an acceptable answer to the problems of health and disability for the patient, (Who would want to live such an undignified life?), for the family (Who would want to care for people with such undignified lives?), and for society (Why should we have to pay?).”

Many QL ethicists want to redefine death so they can harvest more organs for transplant. Those in comas would become potential donors. Yet Smith noted that patients in comas “wake up all the time,” one recently after 16 years.

“How dare we judge somebody’s worth by whether they can give more than they can receive! There comes a time in each person’s life when we must receive more than we can give and it is the essential trait of humanity that that is when we love that person the most. And if we turn our back that is when we will have lost our humanity.”

Smith observed, “‘We’ become ‘them’ not by race, not by gender, but by being a burden. Being a burden is becoming the ultimate sin. If we are a burden to others we have a duty to die.”

Popular support for euthanasia is usually gained by stressing the issue of intractable pain. Yet pain is a false premise. In the latest Oregon figures, concern over pain was cited by just under a third of the 27 individuals who went through with a state-sanctioned, physician-assisted suicide in 2000.

Losing autonomy came in first (93 per cent), followed by decreasing ability to participate in enjoyable activities and losing control of bodily functions (both at 78 per cent) and not being a burden to family, friends and caregivers (63 per cent).

Wesley said there has been such extreme secrecy over physician-assisted suicide in Oregon that he referred to it as “the Iron Shroud. Not one person was in intractable pain. The Oregon law abandons the patients.”

Smith believes we have a “winnable, uphill battle” in preventing euthanasia. After all, Jack Kevorkian is in jail, put there because disability activists sat in court wearing signs reading “Not dead yet.” Kevorkian is not continuing the killing spree. Michigan voted 71 per cent to 29 per cent to defeat assisted suicide.

“If we contain euthanasia, it will, like slavery did, implode. Sanctity of life is right because it is based on equality while quality of life is wrong because it is based on discrimination.”

John Patrick

The third speaker, Dr. John Patrick, teaches sanctity of life ethics to medical students in Canada and abroad. He used exercises from his classes with the symposium. Patrick also illustrated his talk with some of the short stories of Wendell Barry, particularly “Life is a Miracle” because “some novelists can reach our souls” and “stories are what we inhabit.”

Patrick denounced the physiological/psychological/sociological model of medicine as trivial. “We are spiritual beings whether we like it or not. Because we have a reductionist understanding of ourselves, we are an impoverished society. Society looks for technological solutions to moral problems. Divine law is not burdensome. That’s how freedom can happen.”

Patrick is an officer of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada. He is the driving force behind the Hippocratic Registry for physicians who support the Hippocratic Oath. The Oath’s first injunction is to “do no harm.” In Canada, physicians have not been required to take the Hippocratic Oath since 1972. Only 13 per cent of American physicians support it – perhaps, the symposium speculated, because it protects the patient rather than the physician.

DeVeber stressed that a coalition is, by definition, a coming together of various groups to fight one single issue. Wesley Smith agreed. “We are not asking pro-lifers not to be pro-lifers but to work with people who don’t agree on abortion but who do agree on euthanasia.”

Over 50 people attended the symposium which was jointly sponsored by Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Campaign Life Coalition, and Citizen Impact Canada.

For more information: Euthanasia Prevention Coalition Box 25033, London, Ontario N6C 6A8 tel. (519) 439-3348 or toll free 1-877-439-3348 fax (519) 439-7053 website: e-mail:

Excerpts from “Of Murder and Mercy: A Disability Perspective on Euthanasia” presented by Catherine Frazee at the Euthanasia Symposium London, Ontario, April 28, 2001

From 1989-1992 Catherine Frazee was chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Today she is a sessional instructor in the disability studies program at Ryerson University. She is also a research associate at the Roeher Institute, Canada’s policy research organization promoting the equality and self-determination of people with intellectual and other disabilities.

1. Euthanasia is not simply an issue of individual liberty. Euthanasia doesn’t enhance but limits individual liberty. While a few may have all the options that money can buy and choose to die with complete understanding and freedom, the majority who are “offered” this “option” are people that society is all too ready to abandon.

2. It is arrogance in the extreme to assume a universal measure for “quality of life.” “Suffering” and “quality of life” are subjective terms. Non-disabled professionals assume they couldn’t tolerate certain limitations that people with disabilities will tolerate.

3. Euthanasia is a fundamentally political issue. And political issues are always about power – who has it and who doesn’t. The issue of who lives and who dies is one all minorities need to consider very carefully.

The world didn’t respect Sue Rodriguez living longer with a disability because the world doesn’t respect women who lose control of their bodies. Rodriguez’ case was one of cultural image. For most, economic factors are of greater concern. While it is cheaper (only $100 daily) to support someone with a disability to live independently outside an institution, it is actually more expensive in the long run because the disabled live longer independently.

As long as people with disabilities are disenfranchised and treated as unwelcome, and costly burdens on society, euthanasia cannot be a neutral choice. It cannot be a choice made freely as long as people with disabilities are denied adequate and affordable health care, housing, transportation, attendant services, assistive technology, education, employment and community access.

4. Disability is never the sum total of who we are as human beings. Many members of the disabled community – children and Chief Commissioners alike – have experienced the phenomenon of having our disability eclipse all other aspects of our identity. Nobody erased Tracy Latimer’s disability; it was all they could see. What they erased was her humanity. Spastic movements, seizures, incontinence and physical dependence upon others look like suffering in the extreme. But we know first hand this is not so.

Robert Latimer’s humanity is never in question. And at the heart of his cause is a deep cultural fear of disability. We need to find cultural ways of … developing disability pride. Those of you who are not disabled should … support us without appropriating our voices.

5. There is a clear and present danger that threatens the continued existence of many vulnerable persons. The fear is real and palpable. When the Latimer case first came to light, fear ripped through our community, then rage. It galvanized our movement because it was open season on the disabled.

In a growing database at the University of Alberta, there are over 100 fathers, stepfathers, adoptive and foster fathers who are implicated in the homicides of their disabled children. Robert Latimer is only one of these fathers. Mothers too have raised a deadly hand against their disabled children – and the response from our media and justice system has been dangerously ambivalent.

In the violence literature, “depersonalization” – the process of creating social distance – is a critical factor in disinhibiting violence. As Dick Sobsey explains, Tracy Latimer’s media identity as a depersonalized physical entity – as “damaged goods” – has allowed the public to minimize the crime against her.

6. Our lives as disabled persons, are intrinsically valuable. Stigma is the “wild card” in every disabled person’s reality. Although individuals may be freed from the group’s stigma, stigma against the group is not so easily broken down.

7. The eugenic mind is alive and thriving in Canada. Eugenic minds dream of creating a world without disability. But a world without people with disabilities would be barren, heartless and sterile.

Disability is not a ghastly tragedy or a failure of nature. Disability is a part of the human journey. For most it becomes a gateway to new levels of human connectedness. It is an immature notion that life should be comfortable, easy and pain-free. Life’s not like that. Becoming a mature society means opening our pocketbooks and hearts in order to provide the support, acceptance and inclusion each human being needs to be a fully functioning, fully living part of our culture.