The first International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide held in Toronto Nov. 30-Dec. 1 hosted numerous informative speakers on the subject. However, the most poignant testimonials came from those who spoke from personal experience, those whose lives bore the wounds inflicted by the culture of death mentality.

Alison Davis, from the United Kingdom, was one such speaker. A disabled activist, she explained that she was once on the other side of the issue. There is a “terrible prejudice against vulnerable people” in our society, she said, which leads to the conclusion that when they suffer from depression, pain or illness, the answer is to kill them or to assist them in committing suicide. “I have experienced all the symptoms which they claim are symptoms for euthanasia,” Davis said. “If my country had had laws allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide when I was at my lowest point, I would be dead,” she said, heart-wrenchingly detailing her many suicide attempts when she was racked by pain and depression. Luckily for Davis, those around her tried to protect her, to the point of removing all sharp objects from her drawers to prevent her suicide attempts. What someone in that emotional state needs, she affirmed , is love and caring – not killing – and in that way, as she stated so beautifully, “Love becomes a kind of medicine.”

She noted some disturbing trends in the push for euthanasia. The 2005 Mental Capacity Act, in the U.K., makes so-called living wills legally binding upon doctors. Doctors who do not comply could face jail terms. Many of these wills have been designed by anti-life groups, with the specific goal of encouraging euthanasia when “quality of life” is deemed to no longer be present. Calling the push for euthanasia “a deadly mix of emotions and economics,” Davis also noted that six out of 10 elderly persons suffer from malnourishment in seniors’ homes in the U.K. How can one experience a “quality of life” when suffering from malnourishment? She also described the “anti-euthanasia passports” seniors in the Netherlands feel compelled to carry, fearing that if hospitalized, they will be killed.

She said if doctor-assisted suicide were legal when she was depressed, she would not be alive today. She also warned the conference that people can and do change their minds about their desire to die.

Seeing Alison Davis today, with her beautiful smile that lit up the whole room, it is difficult to believe she was once discouraged to the point of despair. She credits the support of friends and family, as well as a 1995 trip to visit a group of disabled children in India, with helping her rediscover hope. The children “stole my heart,” she says with obvious love, and she created a charity for them. She is living proof that the euthanasia mentality devalues the most vulnerable and an example of a person healed by good medicine and the power of love. When asked for one comment she would like to give to the world to help change the culture of death mentality, she replied without hesitation, “Give us the help and support we need to live with dignity!  Once you create that, we don’t want to die!”

Henk Reitsma also knows all too well the pain that devaluing life causes, not just to the victim, but the entire family. His first-hand experience with euthanasia came with the death of his grandfather, which created a void in the family that will never be filled, as well as guilt so terrible in his grandmother’s psyche that she literally moved away from everything and everyone she had ever known. The most poignant moment of his presentation was when he showed a family portrait from happier times, with his grandfather in a wheelchair, smiling beautifully. “Our family is not like this anymore,” he said. The act of euthanasia “tore us apart, leaving us racked with unanswered questions and, in my grandmother’s case, unresolved guilt.” So much for the euthanasia proponents’ claims of “compassionate solutions.”

Reitsma outlined the historical development of “The Dutch Experiment,” showing how it quickly deteriorated from being a choice to die to a duty to die. In 1973, the Gertruida Postma court case paved the way for acceptance of euthanasia in the Netherlands. That same year, James Watson, writing in Prism, stated that “a child should be declared alive only three days after birth.” The eugenics philosophy continued to thrive and in 1978, Francis Crick suggested that an infant should have to pass genetic tests to live. Reitsma pointed out the frightening prospect of using DNA-based criteria to determine whether or not human life is valuable. Until 1985, euthanasia was considered treatment to hasten dying to alleviate suffering and a distinction was made between “active” and “passive.”

However, by 1991, statistics demonstrated that a much broader definition was at work, as the Netherlands descended down the “slippery slope.” That year, there were 2,300 reported cases of euthanasia “on request,” 400 “assisted suicides” and 1,040 cases of euthanasia “without the patient’s consent.” In 1991, new “evaluation procedures” were put in place that legalized de facto euthanasia. Acceptable criteria for forced death now include “psychological suffering,” where children as young as 12 can request to be killed with parental consent.

Reitsma asked the obvious question in response to this appalling situation: how can there exist such an absence of love for these persons requesting death? How did the Netherlands become such a land of death? The answer, he explained, is clear: a utilitarian, reductionist ethic that results in changes in understanding of “what gives life meaning.” He added that “suffering and meaning are not mutually exclusive.” Remembering and preserving “this old bibilical truth” is paramount to healing our culture and reminding us that, indeed, many people have suffered and made enormous contributions to humanity. To “die with dignity,” he said, is to die “being loved and cared  for.” This must be our standard and we must say to everyone, “You are worth caring for.”

The theme of the conference was “Turning the Tide” and the message from those affected personally by this issue was that our love must be strong enough to shine through the darkness of the culture of death and to truly turn the tide towards protecting and defending life.