Laying Down the Lawton

Laying Down the Lawton

For a couple of weeks in January, Canadians were invited to share their thoughts on assisted suicide with the federal government. The “online public consultation” confirms what most people already knew – that the federal government would be revisiting the laws around assisted dying. While social conservatives no doubt leapt at the opportunity to get involved, there’s only one direction this process will go – expanded access and fewer restrictions surrounding assisted suicide.

While there are obviously Canadians with moral objections to assisted suicide, there exists no mainstream political leader prepared to speak for them.

During the French-language leaders’ debate in last year’s federal election, 63-year old Lise Pigeon, who has multiple sclerosis and arthritis, put a challenge to the party leaders. “In order that you, your loved ones and all of us one day have the right to die in dignity,” she asked, “will you promise voters, yes or no, to soften the current legislation…without, of course, making additional obstacles?”

Five of the leaders on stage gave her an unequivocal “yes,” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically promising to “relax” the laws within six months.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was the most restrained, though even his answer didn’t rule out changes. Scheer had touted all of the parties’ cooperation on the initial assisted suicide legislation and promised to respect court decisions while finding a path forward.

All of the leaders applauded Pigeon as the moderator lauded her courageousness for asking party leaders to affirm her right to die.

While I don’t doubt that Pigeon bears a tremendous burden and lives with significant pain, it shouldn’t comfort anyone that a desire for the state to facilitate a suicide, whatever the circumstances, is seen as a cause for celebration rather than lamentation.

When the British Columbia Supreme Court, and then the Supreme Court of Canada, found Canada’s assisted suicide ban to be unconstitutional in the Cartercase, the matter had been effectively reframed as being about “dignity” rather than “life.”

Instead of viewing assisted suicide as a tragic reality, lawmakers seem to embrace it.

I find myself taking a different position on this issue than many of my socially conservative friends: I don’t see how it’s justifiable for the state to prohibit someone of sound mind from deciding to end their life with assistance if it’s not a crime for them to end it without assistance.

I also maintain that support for the legality of something does not equate support for its morality. Hence my unease about the celebratory nature of the cultural – and now political – approach to assisted suicide.

Trudeau himself has vowed to “relax” the laws, which would suggest government’s online consultation is merely window dressing ahead of legislation that’s already been crafted. I suspect the only perspectives that matter are those affirming ideas to which the government is already committed.

The next wave of legislation on this will be significant given pushes from the fringes to allow those with mental illnesses, as well as minors, to access medically assisted suicide.

A report last year from the Council of Canadian Academies appeared to open the door to expansion of access to these two groups, which would be a colossal mistake.

It was nine years ago that I nearly succeeded in taking my own life during a long battle with mental illness. At the worst point, a desire to die was a symptom of my ailment. Fulfilling that desire would hardly be a cure.

Medically assisted suicide is an affront to mental illness – not a remedy. There’d be nothing dignified about normalizing the feelings of people who don’t see hope because of the condition from which they seek relief.

This happened to 27-year old Adam Maier-Clayton in 2017, who was convinced after trying myriad treatments that there was no cure for his mental and physical ailments.

A Dutch doctor who promotes expanded euthanasia and medically assisted suicide access, Phillip Nitschke, told me at the time that mental illness shouldn’t be a disqualifying factor because people dealing with it can still be “rational.” Rationality doesn’t equate to clarity, however.

As government takes its moral cues from people who seem devoted to suicide-on-demand, whatever the circumstances, society and political leaders need to seize the moral debate that modern political ‘wisdom’ suggests is so toxic.

It is literally a life or death situation.