Leaders from the medical, hospice, palliative care and pro-life fields in Ontario have joined to form a coalition that will combat the potential onset and promotion of euthanasia and assisted suicide practices in the province.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario has attracted such figures as Dr. Barry DeVeber, president emeritus of the DeVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, and Jean Echlin, a registered nurse who is well-known for having served as a director of the Hospice of Windsor. The sister of a woman who was a victim of Dr. Jack Kevorkian is also involved.

EPCO has, as its primary goal, the formation of a well-informed and broadly based network that will support measures creating an effective social barrier to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

“Dr. DeVeber is extremely well respected,” executive director Alex Schadenberg said of the coalition’s first president. “He is well-known in the pro-life and medical communities. I don’t think you can find anyone better than him.

“Jean Echlin (the vice-president) has been involved in hospice and palliative care work for 20 years and has been at the bedsides of well over 1,000 people, helping them to die with true dignity. She is an amazingly wonderful and compassionate person.”

EPCO was inspired by a similar organization in B.C. – the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C. – which has been successful in stirring public interest in the issue of euthanasia on the heels of the Sue Rodriguez court battle and her subsequent assisted suicide.

Schadenberg, former director of the Roman Catholic diocese of London’s pro-life office, said the seeds for EPCO were sown both by the B.C. experience and the realization that one Ontario group alone couldn’t handle the breadth of the euthanasia and assisted suicide issues. Nor could such a group draw the degree of widespread support from the community necessary to make a significant impact. “To be effective, it was necessary to form a coalition,” he said.

Other members of the coalition include:

• Dr. John Swift, medical director of palliative care units at the London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph Health Centre

• Bishop J.M. Sherlock of the Roman Catholic diocese of London, Ont.

• Jim Hughes of Campaign Life Coalition

• Jakki Jeffs of Alliance for Life Ontario

• Jack Baribeau of Citizen Impact

• Paul Crawford of the Knights of Columbus

• Tina Allerellie, whose sister was an assisted suicide victim of Jack Kevorkian

Schadenberg said a major task of the coalition is to re-educate pro-lifers and motivate them to take the issue of euthanasia seriously. “People in pro-life groups are often concerned about the issue of abortion. They’re not that concerned about euthanasia, and some of them don’t see the connection.

“People define (euthanasia) incorrectly. By far the majority of people think that if you turn off a life support system – even if the person was near the end of his life – it’s a case of euthanasia. But that’s not euthanasia at all.”

In society at large, EPCO will take up the challenge of making known the many options available in terms of end-of-life care. “People don’t know a lot about the options available to them. They don’t understand the developments that have taken place over the last 20 years in palliative care,” said Schadenberg. “People say, ‘I watched my mother die 15 years ago, and I don’t want that ever to happen to me.’ Well, I can understand what they’re saying, but they must come to realize that that should never have happened then, and it should be averted now.”

Other misconceptions are that the majority of those requesting euthanasia do so for reasons of pain and physical suffering. “Only a small percentage of people request (euthanasia) because of pain,” said Schadenberg. “The majority request it because they are lonely, alone, feel that no one seems to care about their existence, and they feel useless. So we recognize a need for greater outreach in our society. We have every intention … of starting an organization that will be able to do this sort of community service.”

Coalition members adhere to the principle that euthanasia and assisted suicide should continue to be treated as murder, regardless of whether the person killed consented to it or not. They also want to see hospice and palliative care needs enhanced and promoted across Ontario.

“The present law does not distinguish between euthanasia, assisted suicide and other forms of murder,” said Schadenberg. “The key consideration is the intention to cause death. Consent or motive – even one of compassion – does not change the reality that a human being is being killed.”

EPCO hopes to accomplish its education goals via the use of pamphlets, information seminars, media campaigns and research articles.

Its first order of business will be the development of a Protective Medical Decisions Document, which will be drafted with the help of a lawyer. The document will provide advanced medical directives from a pro-life point of view. It is an answer to the so-called living wills, which have the potential to lead to euthanasia.

Schadenberg urged anyone who wants to get involved, become a member, or who simply needs information about it or palliative care, to contact the coalition.