On Nov. 2, a column by Steven Fletcher appeared in the National Post about C-384, a private member’s bill that would legalize euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. Fletcher’s opinion could be influential; not only is he a Conservative MP and cabinet minister, he is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair since a 1996 automobile accident, He said more should be done to improve the lives with severe disabilities and that care for terminally ill patients needs to get much better, but that is unwilling to deny someone in desperate circumstances to end their own life. He is therefore going to abstain from voting on the bill.
Fletcher talks about his own experience of recovery, with its surgeries, pain, fears and challenges. He said after his accident: “I could not talk but was fully conscious. I had to learn to breathe normally again. It was four months before I could speak, and it took almost a year to breathe comfortably.” He continues: “The perpetual sense of drowning in my own phlegm made it impossible to sleep – this itself being a type of torture, adding to my emotional pain and terror.” He was informed by medical personnel that if he survived, he would be confined to institutional living for the rest of his life.
Sadly, if euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide were legal when he had his accident 13 years ago, there is a pretty good chance that rather than being an MP today, he’d be dead. He doesn’t address this in his column.
Fletcher also lets the cat out of the bag when he indirectly makes these points: euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide is not ultimately just about letting the terminally ill die a “dignified death” but about killing anyone who does not want to continue living. By using his own example, he says those with disabilities or facing chronic pain, not only those whose death is imminent, should be allowed access to euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide. This is a significantly different argument than the one pushed publicly by euthanasia and assisted death advocates who unconvincingly insist that liberalized laws on euthanasia/doctor-assisted suicide would only apply to the terminally ill.
Some patients might have loved ones who will persevere with them, but others would not. Some patients might have doctors who want to try to save lives and work toward as much recovery as possible, but others would not. How many future Steven Fletchers will be lost in the emergency room or shortly thereafter because legal euthanasia would signal to medical professionals and family members that it is okay to give up? He has often noted that he is thankful for the second chance, but he does not acknowledge that under a different set of laws, he would have been denied it.
Paradoxically, he says that if given the opportunity in 1996, he would have chosen death and says that if he finds himself in a worsening situation, he wants the “choice” to end his life or if he is unable to so, have others decide for him. He admits he favours death over “existence without living” and that he will take his “chances on the other side.” His living will makes his desire clear.
Here’s the problem: there is no chance for a person to change his or her mind on this issue once the “choice” is carried out. I understand the autonomy arguments and have some sympathy for them, but the law should uphold and protect life. If medical staff or family members or even the patient himself is wrong, there is no going back. The preference for life must be stronger than any concern for personal autonomy. Euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide violate this preference.
But my disagreement goes deeper than that. I don’t ever conceive that killing another human being is merciful, which Fletcher does in certain circumstances. Euthanasia is the absence of compassion and love and mercy properly understood.