A master’s thesis written by a criminology student at Simon Fraser University looks set to become a weapon in the push to legalize euthanasia via physician-assisted suicide, despite its limited scope and biased conclusion.
Social worker Russel Ogden set out to investigate the persistent allegation that euthanasia is common among the AIDS population. He documented 34 cases of assisted AIDS suicide between 1980 and 1993, 29 of which took place in British Columbia. He also interviewed 28 people with HIV/AIDS and 17 people who had been involved with euthanasia deaths of AIDS patients.
Overall he found a high acceptance of euthanasia among the HIV-infected community but a low level of expertise in appropriate methods of killing. Some deaths were “botched,” Ogden says, with people “dying in conditions akin to those of a backstreet abortion. “In his view, legalizing euthanasia would lead to efficient dying.
Ogden, a member of the Victoria-based Right to Die Society, is not releasing his full thesis at the moment, saying he fears it would be “sensationalized.” He has, however, been the target of media interest, not least because the Vancouver Sun published an exclusive story about it on the day Sue Rodriguez died. Ogden calls this a “weird coincidence.”
Although the euthanasia deaths documented by Ogden represent 2.7 per cent of the AIDS deaths in B.C., he considers the actual figures are probably much higher. He suggests the Netherlands estimates of between 10 and 20 per cent would be more accurate, a number when AIDS activists told him is “rather conservative.”
Veteran pro-lifers will recognize the tactic here. Dr, Bernard Nathanson has often described how American abortion activists ruthlessly-and imaginatively-inflated the numbers of illegal and botched abortion annually in order to engage public sympathy. As with illegal abortion, there is absolutely no way to gather accurate statistics of illegal euthanasia killing. Unfortunately it is likely that only pro-lifers will be the one to see through this manipulation of the emotions.
Ogden’s sources are anonymous, and he vows he will refuse to reveal any information which could identify those who have participated in euthanasia killing. Euthanasia among the AIDS infected is “in the closet,” says Ogden. At least 10 people interviewed indicated that they administered fatal drugs, actions which could lead to murder charges. Anyone who aids, abets or counsels suicide is liable to up to 14 years’ imprisonment. The thesis is said to contain gruesome descriptions of terminally-ill people falling into comas through miscalculated pill dosages and only dying after the “helper” placed a plastic bag over their heads. One participant observed. “There’s nothing worse than trying to alleviate somebody’s suffering, only to see that you are causing more.” Another explained that once the killing goes wrong, the observers are reluctant to call for medical help. They fear criminal charges, and the “cruel revival” of the patient.
Perhaps the publicity surrounding this thesis is merely a “weird coincidence.” Perhaps not. Its impact, however, for those who read the newspaper reports will be to reinforce a vague sense in the back of most people’s minds and it is not the killing itself that is wrong but the fact that the killers were incompetent.
It’s been said before, but we must remember and repeat constantly: suicide was not descriminalized because parliament recognized a right to kill oneself. Penalties for those who try to kill themselves were taken away because society recognized that these people need our help, not a jail term. High schools now routinely offer suicide prevention programmes because the suicide rates for young people are rising. What a setback it would be if we now decide to ignore people’s pain and agree that we will legally sanctify their deaths instead of healing their suffering.
AIDS activists have spent many years trying to persuade the public to show compassion and tolerance towards the HIV-infected community. I would if they have considered how assisted suicide will hamper these efforts. Prejudices run deep, and it will be all too easy for some people to go along with legalizing it rather than adjusting their attitudes towards the suffering. Some closets should never be opened.