The Canadian abortion movement had Dr. Henry Morgentaler. Now, the Canadian euthanasia movement may have Dr. Nancy Morrison.
Morrison, a respirologist at Victoria General Hospital in Halifax, is facing a first-degree murder charge in connection with the death last November of 65-year-old Paul Mills. The Moncton, N.B. resident, who was under Morrison’s care, died after a battle with cancer of the oesophagus.
Parallels abound between the cases of Morgentaler and Morrison. Both have been criminally charged in connection with the respective issues and both have been portrayed more or less as martyrs by sympathetic news media.
The Toronto Sun, for example, ran a front-page, “exclusive” interview with morrison in which she was allowed to tell her side of the story — an unusual opportunity for anyone charged with first-degree murder.
While the precise circumstances surrounding Mills’ death remain a mystery, Halifax police stress Morrison’s arrest was not in relation to an attempted or assisted suicide. This fact led to speculation that Mills was put to death without his permission.
“It’s a first-degree murder — a planned and deliberate killing,” said Crown attorney Craig Botterill. “It’s plain and simple.”
Legislation in Nova Scotia permits doctors to remove critically ill patients from life support, but does not permit them to hasten the dying process by administering lethal dosages of medication.
In two similar cases in Ontario, health care professionals were originally charged with second-degree murder, but ended up pleading guilty to reduced changes before their cases went to trial.
The Morrison incident follows two other high-profile cases in recent years: those of Sue Rodriguez, whose 1994 suicide was aided by an unknown doctor, and Robert Latimer, who is appealing a second-degree murder conviction in connection with the death of his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who had cerebral palsy.
Hospital records show that Mills died of natural causes. A complaint from someone within the hospital complex prompted a six-week investigation by Halifax police which culminated in Morrison’s arrest May 6.
Morrison, 41, was released on $10,000 bail and was allowed to continue practising medicine, but not in an intensive-care unit. In the wake of the charge, her colleagues were reported to have rallied behind her and her hospital issued a statement of support.
It was later reported that the hospital’s vice-president of medical services went on indefinite leave after police began investigating an allegation by Morrison that a second doctor killed a patient at the hospital.
As well, publicity surrounding the situation led to eight complaints to police by people concerned about the deaths of their loved ones at Victoria General Hospital.
Other parts of the medical community weren’t happy with the way the Morrison case was being treated.
“Very senior physicians in the critical-care community in Canada . . . have ben staggered by the course of action that has been taken,” remarked Dr. Graeme Rocker, who wrote Victoria hospital’s guidelines on withdrawal of life support.
Morrison, for her part, was unrepentant, and vowed to contest the charge against her. “My client’s a very strong individual, a person who believes in her innocence and she’ll fight to the very end,” said her lawyer, Joel Pink.
News media reported that Morrison has been “swamped” by letters, cards an faxes of support from across Canada and the U.S., that there was a 4,000 name petition backing her and that her pastor stood solidly behind her.
“Someday, someone will reap the benefits of what Nancy’s going through right now,” said Rev. John Scott of All Saints Cathedral.
Recently, Morrison returned to work pending preliminary hearings next Feb. 9. While she will not treat any emergency or life-or-death cases, she will not be under special supervision either.
Soon after Morrison’s return to work, Ontario’s deputy chief coroner dropped the bombshell that he believes mercy killings are taking place in homes across the province. Dr. James Cairns said he suspects many relatives administer drugs that hasten death.
Cairns said the Criminal Code needs to be amended so there are options other than charging a family member or health care worker with murder or assisted suicide. “There’s a difference between killing somebody who’s going to die soon and taking a knife and stabbing somebody 25 times,” he said.
Cairns received strong support from Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Applied and Professional Ethics at the University of Manitoba and reported by the mainstream media to be a “prominent” ethicist.
“Families are often under great emotional stress because of guilt, inheritances and the burden of caring for someone who’s sick,” he said. “It would be better and safer if patients could call a doctor who could assist them to die at a time of their choosing.”
Schafer, in a May interview with the Toronto Star, claimed that doctors across Canada “routinely” give patients powerful, pain-killing drugs, knowing that the medications can hasten their patients’ deaths.
But Schafer is receiving opposition from Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. “We’re at a particularly dangerous point in Western secular democracy,” she says. “Suddenly, at the end of the 20th century, when paradoxically we can do much, much more to relieve pain and suffering, we’re thinking it’s a good idea to kill people to eliminate pain and suffering.”
Janice Scholtens, chair of the anti-euthanasia group Citizens Advocating the Rejection of Euthanasia (a branch of Halton Pro-Life in Burlington, Ont.), is also examining the scenario with concern.
“The mercy-killing thing is going to become a huge issue,” she says. “What we’re really afraid of in this (Morrison) case is that, like abortion came in through the courts, mercy-killing will become legal through the courts.”
She points to the parallels between the Morgentaler and Morrison cases as being the thin edges of wedges that open the door to respective evils. “The similarities between the two cases are very, very interesting.”
Scholtens works closely with elderly Alzheimer’s patients in an Ontario retirement home, which is why she sees the well-being and protection of vulnerable persons as being “near and dear” to her heart.
On behalf of CARE, Scholtens says she agrees with the first-degree murder charge laid against Morrison, but “we disagree with the fact she’s being allowed to practise. I don’t know how many patients will want to go to her.”
“Mercy-killing and doctor-assisted suicide are such a grey area,” she adds. “No one really wants to touch it.”
Scholtens questions deputy chief coroner Cairns assertion that mercy killings are taking place regularly in homes across Ontario. “I’ve read that it happens, but who’s to say? . . . In the end, what matters is that it’s illegal, and if it is happening, it has to stop. Something has to be done about it.”
Scholtens says there are a number of steps concerned Canadians can take to stem the on come of euthanasia as an accepted practice. “The biggest thing is education of the public — letting it know what living wills are really all about . . . that a doctor can translate them any way he or she wants to.
“We also have to inform people about other choices. Palliative care is a thing people should be made aware of. And we should write to our MPs, asking for more funding for palliative care, which is a great program. It works well for people dying of cancer. They’re comfortable and pain-free.”
A Canadian Senate committee two years ago narrowly came out against legalizing any form of euthanasia. while it recommended involuntary euthanasia remain illegal, it suggested legislators add a new charge of “third-degree murder” to allow for a lighter sentence.
The committee’s report was ultimately shelved.