After the revelation that a Detroit doctor, Jack Kevorkian, had invented a “suicide machine,” and that a 54-year-old Oregon woman with Alzheimer’s disease had used it to take her own life, so-called mercy killing was very much in the news again.
Vancouver AIDS activist David Lewis (who has the disease himself) said that he had helped eight AIDS sufferers to kill themselves. He claimed that such mercy killings are happening quietly every day all across Canada. We treat our pets better than our loved ones, he said: “We take our dog to the vet for a lethal injection when the dog is in pain but we don’t take granny to the doctor to be put out of pain even if she begs for it.”
Dr. Philip Berger, a Toronto doctor who treats AIDS patients, sympathized with Lewis’s argument: “I sympathize with the grief and outrage in society this man is addressing. “He considers that euthanasia should be made legal, “with stringent, severe safeguards and checks so it could not be abused by physicians or patients or family members.” AIDS patients, he said, suffer terrible pain in the final days of the illness; his view is that patients in the final stages of a terminal disease should be given a legal method of ending their won lives.
The Netherlands is the only country which tolerates euthanasia. It is technically illegal, but the courts have agreed not to prosecute doctors who follow certain guidelines: the patient must have very severe suffering, with no hope of relief; he or she must have made an explicit and repeated request to die; there must be no options for untried treatment; and two physicians must give their consent.
Dr. Peter Singer of the University of Toronto Centre for Bioethics argues strongly against the growing movement to allow mercy killing. In a society in which discrimination is common and many citizens do not have access to basic health care, euthanasia would be a powerful tool to discriminate against groups which are easily coerced and whose rights are already in jeopardy, he believes. The risks are also too great that patients will be coerced into agreeing to die to spare their families emotional or financial strain.
Mrs. Margaret Somerville, director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, maintains that most calls for mercy killing would be eliminated if doctors used the drugs available to relieve patients suffering. She regards the move to legalize mercy killing as very dangerous: “It sets up a legalized system that you can kill someone else.” She also describes Kevorkian’s machine as a “moral outrage.”
Dr. Shelagh Emmott, a Toronto clinical psychologist who works with AIDS victims, told MacLean’s that as many as four patients a day mention suicide to her, and that in most cases she has been able to convince them not to attempt it. Later, after the patients received emotional counseling or medical assistance, all of those who decided not to commit suicide have been grateful to her. “People find that they can manage,” she said.