Dr. Barrie de Veber with his Wife Iola at a dinner honouring his many contributions to society.

More than 100 people attended the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition national convention Nov. 17 in London, Ont., to hear from speakers from legal, medical and disabilities backgrounds address the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and to honour Dr. Barrie de Veber at a closing banquet.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the EPC, told The Interim he was “very pleased” with how the convention and dinner went, noting that “the speakers were excellent” and the “tribute to Dr. de Veber long overdue.”

At the convention, Schadenberg examined a Belgian study that showed the law was routinely broken as protocols to protect vulnerable individuals were ignored and regulations on carrying out assisted-suicide requests flouted. After sharing the disturbing details of the survey of Belgian doctors and nurses rules were broken so often, Schadenberg sarcastically noted: “So we in Canada don’t have anything to worry about with the law not being followed” if one were passed with ostensible safeguards. He said, “there are no real safeguards and we’re supposed to feel safe.”

The wife of a retired Lutheran minister celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary on the day of the convention, told The Interim after Schadenberg’s talk that “I’m scared to go to a hospital” in light of reports of unrequested cases of euthanasia.

Hugh Scher, legal counsel for EPC, called euthanasia “the most debated social issue in Canada over the past 20 years” noting that nine different bills (none of which passed) and numerous court cases have grappled with the topic. Parliament he noted, “expressed its will that euthanasia not be legalized” when it defeated a private member’s motion by the late Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde by a five to one margin. He said having lost in Parliament euthanasia activists have gone to the courts, where the EPC has become active as an intervener. Scher  said the courts have been more receptive to permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide and critiqued Justice Lynn Smith’s B.C. Superior Court decision demanding Parliament legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide and granting a constitutional waiver to the late Gloria Taylor permitting her to have a doctor hasten her death. (Taylor has since reportedly died of natural causes.)

Amy Harbrouck, a Quebec attorney and chair of the board of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, and Rhonda Wiebe, co-chair of the Council of Canadians ending of life issues committee and a member of the Not Dead Yet board, co-presented a talk on euthanasia and assisted suicide from a disability perspective. Harbouck noted the lethal irony that individuals with disabilities do not have equal access to suicide prevention programs yet are considered prime candidates for physician assisted suicide, leading her to conclude “assisted suicide is discrimination.”

Harbrouck employed sarcasm and irony to counter typical arguments for euthanasia and assisted suicide. She noted the biased polling that indicates the public supports euthanasia but sardonically stated “law is not based on public opinion.” She said polls are “skewed because people are not hearing enough from the disability community.”

She also observed the growing confusion between palliative care and the deliberate hastening of death, saying “as far as I know suicide is not pain relief.”

Harbrouck insisted that “suicide prevention is for everyone.”

Weibe said the disability community does not recognize or accept suicide “as a right or a benefit.” She observed that suicide often arises from devaluation and disconnection and therefore the answer to requests for assistance in suicide are cries for help. She also noted that the desire to help talk most people out of suicide while rushing to bring in a regime of assisted suicide for people with disabilities is discrimination.

Dr. Margaret Cottle, a palliative care physician and a clinical care instructor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, closed the conference by declaring she was “glad to be on this team with people who care about each other.” She said just as society recognizes the natural environment requires protection do does “the metaphysical environment.” She asked of fulfilling request for assisted suicide, “aren’t we better than this?” She said that just as developers must prove they will cause no harm to the physical environment before proceeding with a project, advocates of legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide “must prove no harm” is done in changing the law. She charged many medical professionals of “putting themselves out of their own suffering” because they do not know how to deal with terminally ill patients.

Cottle also noted that according to a survey of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians, there is widespread opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide among doctors caring for the sick at the end of their lives: 88 per cent are opposed to legalizing euthanasia, 91 per cent are unwilling to participate in it, and 81 per cent are opposed to legalizing physician assisted suicide. She related a story about appearing on television with an advocate of euthanasia who said many palliative care doctors support his agenda, and she challenged him to produce such a person because the poll of the profession indicated such views were rare.

Despite progress since 1967 when Canada opened its first hospice to provide palliation for dying patients, Cottle said challenges remain. Only 30 per cent of Canadians have adequate access to palliative care. Furthermore, she reported, the Montreal Palliative Care Meeting has been infiltrated by advocates of euthanasia who are “overt and militant” in their advocacy of physician assisted suicide. She said their arguments rely on autonomy and “existential suffering” so anti-euthanasia and assisted suicide arguments must answer that.

De Veber honoured

After the conference, about 100 people attended a banquet honouring Dr. Barrie de Veber, and there were several speakers acknowledging his contributions to the health profession and pro-life movement; there were also about a dozen emails from medical doctors from abroad noting his influence in promoting palliative care and international opponents of euthanasia praising his fight against legalizing the killing of the sick and disabled.

De Veber founded one of the first two local pro-life groups in Canada in a church basement in London, Ont., the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. He was also a president of Alliance for Life Canada in the 1970s, founder of the Toronto-based Human Life Research Institute in 1982 (and since renamed the de Veber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research), and co-founded the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario (now Canada). He also founded Camp Trillium for young cancer patients and their siblings, and is professor emeritus in pediatrics and oncology at the University of Western Ontario.

Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes told several jokes that attracted both laughs and groans before becoming serious. Hughes said he “thanked God for knowing you all these years” and praised the “foundation you helped create” upon which later pro-life work could be carried out.

Palliative care nurse and EPC co-founder Jean Echlin praised de Veber’s wife Iola for “putting together a strong family that supported him” in all his work. Lawyer Hugh Scher, another EPC co-founder, thanked de Veber for becoming “a world leader in opposing euthanasia” and “putting together and marshaling the strength of the EPC.”

Dr. Margaret Cottle, who serves on the board of the EPC praised de Veber’s tenaciousness and stubbornness that allowed him to carry on in areas “in which there was hostility to his values.” She concluded, “thank you for not giving up.”

Kathy Matusiak, executive director of the de Veber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, said despite his numerous and varied accomplishments, de Veber is a humble man who protested the renaming of the Human Life Research Institute in 1996 when the board of directors chose to honour its founder by including his name in theirs.

Alex Schadenberg’s mother Mary van Veen of Woodstock, Ont., said de Veber changed her life. Recalling his support for her local pro-life group in the early 1970s, she said it was at his insistence that she became head of Woodstock Right to Life after her fifth son, David, was born. She said de Veber addressed the first meeting of the group in 1974 and again at Woodstock RTL’s 35th anniversary.

Bishop emeritus of London, John Sherlock, said de Veber was a man “who acted on his faith from which his pro-life values flowed,” calling him “a devoted servant of God” who “deserves our admiration and support.”

De Veber said he was greatly influenced by his parents. He said his mother taught him in the 1930s “that everyone was equal.” That was revolutionary at the time and it stuck with de Veber his whole life. His father, he said, “was the model of a gentleman,” and both his parents made him what he became.

Of his numerous endeavours, de Veber said, “I jump into a lot of things not knowing what was going to happen,” but he did them because they needed to be done. He said Camp Trillium, which he founded in 1984 to provide recreational experiences for children with cancer and their families to enhance their quality of life, was “the biggest thing we did.”

He concluded the evening by thanking everyone – “I’m grateful to you all who came out” – and vowed to “keep going” in the work that brought 100 people out to honour him.