National Affairs Rory Leishman

In defense of the pernicious proposition that all mentally competent Canadians should have a legal right to medical assistance in committing suicide, the “expert panel” of the Royal Society of Canada on end-of-life decision making contends, in its recent report, that: “Autonomy (or the capacity for self-determination) is a paramount value to Canadians. Respect for autonomy requires respect for competent individuals’ free and informed decisions with respect to how and when they die.”

Is that so? Many Canadians might well disagree. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms plainly states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the sovereignty of God and the rule of law.”

To recognize the sovereignty of God is not to uphold our personal autonomy as the paramount value, but to obey His commandments, including: “Thou shalt not kill.” To illustrate this viewpoint, the panel quotes a statement in a policy paper of the Salvation Army in Canada which affirms: “Human life is a sacred gift from God. The Salvation Army believes, as a consequence, that euthanasia and assisted suicide are morally wrong.”

Udo Schuklenk, the head of the Royal Society’s panel on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, scorns this argu-

ment. As an avowed atheist, professor of philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in bioethics at Queen’s University, he presumes to be wise in his own conceit. Together with his fellow Royal Society panelists, he maintains: “Once the argument about having been made by and in the image of God is taken away, it seems impossible to point to some trait possessed by all humans, and only by humans, that grounds the attribution of dignity to them.”

In plain language, these “progressive” intellectuals suggest that it is impossible to demonstrate on the basis of reason alone that the life of a human being is inherently worth any more than the life of a dog, a cat or a chimpanzee. Is it any wonder, then, that the expert panel supports voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide?

In defense of the alleged “centrality of autonomy to a liberal democratic regime such as Canada,” the Royal Society panelists claim that whether one looks to John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant, “it has been clear to thinkers of liberal democracy that individual autonomy and liberal democracy are inextricably linked…” Perhaps so, but the panelists must know that both Mill and Kant argued that no one has a right to commit suicide.

As for the law, the panelists contend: “The philosophical and institutional importance of individual autonomy for liberal democracies is clearly reflected in the decisions that have been taken by the Supreme Court of Canada since 1982, when a Charter of Rights and Freedoms was entrenched in Canada’s Constitution.” To back up this proposition, the panelist cite just two judgments by the Supreme Court of Canada – Carlariello v. Schachter, 1993, and Rodriguez v. British Columbia, also in 1993.

In Rodriguez, Mr. Justice John Sopinka stated in his reasons for the majority that the Charter protects the right to “control over one’s physical and psychological integrity.” But that right is not absolute. In Rodriguez, the Court held that the Charter does not encompass any right to medical assistance in committing suicide.

At issue in Carlariello was the right of a patient to refuse medical treatment. In reasons for the Court, Mr. Justice Peter Cory wrote: “Everyone has the right to decide what is to be done to one’s own body. This includes the right to be free from medical treatment to which the individual does not consent. This concept of individual autonomy is fundamental to the common law.”

True enough, but individual autonomy in the common law is also not absolute. Sir William Blackstone affirmed in his magisterial Commentaries on the Laws of England that anyone who “deliberately puts an end to his own existence” commits a felony that ranks “among the highest crimes.”

On one point in the debate over euthanasia and assisted suicide, there is no disputing: Everyone has a right in both law and morality to refuse any futile medical treatment that serves only to prolong the dying process. Pope John Paul II carefully explained in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life): “When death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted…”

Subsequently, John Paul specified that normal care includes “the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means.” In his learned opinion, artificial nutrition and hydration is “a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act, and should be considered morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.”

In contrast, the Royal Society’s expert panelists maintain that a patient has both a moral and a legal right to commit suicide by the withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration. They assert: “The law draws no distinction between withholding and withdrawal (of medical treatment). Nor does it treat artificial hydration and nutrition any differently than other technological or pharmaceutical interventions (for example, mechanical ventilation or antibiotics). It does not restrict refusals to situations involving terminal illness or imminent death.”

Canadian physicians should beware of acting on this legal advice: the panelists did not, and could not, cite any ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada which affirms that a physician can legally withdraw nutrition and hydration at the request of a mentally competent patient. Neither is there any such provision in the criminal code.

Rather, section 14 of the Criminal Code states: “No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him, and such consent does not affect the criminal responsibility of any person by whom death may be inflicted on the person by whom consent is given.” Correspondingly, section 215 provides: “Everyone is under a legal duty to provide necessaries of life to a person under his charge if that person is unable to provide himself with necessaries of life.” Likewise, section 241 stipulates: “Everyone who … aids or abets a person to commit suicide … is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years.”

What about pain control? In Rodriguez, Mr. Justice John Sopinka affirmed that it morally and legally permissible for a physician to administer enough medication to a dying patient to control pain even if the physician knows the dose could hasten death. Sopinka explained: “In the case of palliative care the intention is to ease pain, which has the effect of hastening death, while in the case of assisted suicide, the intention is undeniably to cause death.” The former is legal; the latter is a crime. Quoting from a paper by the Law Reform Commission, Sopinka wrote: “A doctor should never refuse palliative care to a terminally ill person because it may hasten death.”

The law is clear: A physician who intends to hasten the death a patient with a lethal dose of medication can be charged with murder or aiding and abetting a suicide. To safeguard the lives of elderly, frail and vulnerable Canadians, that’s the way the law should remain.

Several bills have been introduced into Parliament to abolish the bans on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide in the criminal code. None has succeeded. In the last of these attempts in May, 2010, Parliament voted down the bill by the overwhelming margin of 228 to 59.

Regardless, advocates of euthanasia are now attempting to do an end-run around Parliament by getting the courts to declare that Canadians have a right to voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide by virtue of the guarantee in section 7 of the Charter of the right to “life, liberty and security of the person.” The Supreme Court of Canada rejected this absurd argument in Rodriguez and should continue to do so. But, alas, that is far from certain.

Canada’s top court is dominated by judicial activists who have repeatedly demonstrated scant regard for their own precedents or the constitutional separation of legislative and judicial powers. Still, let us hope and pray that our robed dictators will not stoop so low as to side with the misguided intellectuals in the Royal Society who hold that Canadians have an autonomy right to commit suicide.

The duty of judges on the Supreme Court of Canada is plain: They should uphold the laws and Constitution of Canada, by respecting the express will of Parliament in decisively rejecting all proposals to legalize murder and suicide under the guise of voluntary euthanasia.