TORONTO — Canada’s 17-month-old legalized euthanasia/assisted suicide regime, praised as a model of restraint and balance by its supporters, appears to be heading for a major expansion — raising the specter of a law that will help to kill new classes of people who are ill and suffering.
A government-appointed panel of specialists is now reviewing the law, enacted in June 2016. They have been tasked with recommending whether teenagers and the mentally ill should also have the right to end their own lives. The panel is also studying the possibility of allowing requests for assisted suicide through advanced directives authorizing it for those concerned about being left to linger in a vegetative state.
For some, the potential expansion is a frightening but inevitable part of state-sanctioned killing, regardless of the original restrictions.
“I think this is a hardening of conscience,” Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto told the Register. “Just as sometimes calluses grow on the physical body, they can form on the human conscience. And what people were once rightly sensitive to as being as wrong, they’ve come to accept. Familiarity breeds contempt. And familiarity also allows people to accept what was unacceptable.
“We were shocked at the thought of any euthanasia. And now we’re shocked at extending it. But then we’ll get used to that [as a culture]. As it keeps going, more and more, we’ll be shocked for a moment and then we will accept it. I think this is a really sick addictive behavior in society.”
Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the London, Ontario-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, which opposes medically assisted suicide in many countries, agrees that, as the line moves, societal acceptance becomes more elastic.
“The fact remains that the only clear line is to kill or not to kill. Once you have accepted killing as an acceptable response to human difficulty, then the only remaining question is: Who can be killed and under what circumstances?” he said.
In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Canadian Criminal Code provisions that equated assisted suicide with murder. By a 9-0 vote, it argued that laws preventing medically assisted killing went against the constitutional right to happiness.
The court’s decision left the parameters wide open, but the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose to set limits on who could apply to have their life ended. Essentially, the Canadian government’s legislation on medically assisted killing said that the person involved must be of legal age, mentally competent and someone whose death was reasonably foreseeable.
An editorial in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, published to mark the June 2017 anniversary of the new law, called its restrictions “sensible” because they would “prevent Canadians from making hasty decisions.” The editorial jibed with the generally held position the law will not change subsequently and that concerns regarding a potential “slippery slope” are nothing more than fear-mongering. It also reflected the views of many of Canada’s mainstream newspapers.
Even with the restrictions, in the first 12 months of legalization, nearly 2,000 Canadians died via medically prescribed poison injected into their veins. To put that into perspective, in 2003, Belgium, in its first full year of legal assisted suicide, killed 235 of its citizens. Accounting for Belgium’s smaller population, that means Canada helped three times as many people on a per capita basis to take their own lives.
Yet, at the end of last year, the government quietly called for a committee of specialists to explore whether to extend the right to medically assisted suicide to teens and the mentally ill. It also was asked to look at allowing requests for voluntary euthanasia in advanced directives. While the report may not be released till late into 2018, the fact the government is studying an expansion of assisted suicide is setting off alarms in Canada’s pro-life community.
“Legislators argued that they were going to enact tight legislation that would not be abused and that would be balanced, but in fact, since the legalization, all we have heard about is the need to expand the law,” said Schadenberg. “Children, people with psychological issues and people with dementia cannot clearly request or consent to being killed. The three areas of expansion that are being debated show that the requirement that the person must clearly request that they be killed was only a selling point to get the country to accept euthanasia.”
The decision to explore expanding the present law has not been a complete surprise to anti-assisted suicide activists. Prior to the enactment of the 2016 bill, a parliamentary committee was formed to decide on guidelines for the new law. It called for a wide range of people to be eligible to end their own lives with the blessing of the state.
For example, it recommended that those with “mental suffering” also be allowed to end their lives by the hands of their doctors.
“That physical or psychological suffering that is enduring and intolerable to the person in the circumstances of his or her condition should be recognized as a criterion to access medical assistance in dying (MAID),” according to the committee.
And while the committee never used the words “teens” or “children,” it did make it clear that age should not be a factor in deciding who is eligible for assisted suicide. It recommended that the legislation ensure that “eligibility for MAID” depend “on competence rather than age.”
A major concern for anti-euthanasia activists is that the Liberal Party supported euthanasia in practice before it was legalized; and in the last federal election, in 2015, the Liberals banned all pro-life candidates from running under their banner.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.
“Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded” (2277).
Just prior to the Supreme Court of Canada decision, an Angus Reid poll found 70% of Catholics supporting assisted suicide, compared with nearly 70% of evangelical Protestants opposing it.
That failure on the part of many Catholics to recognize euthanasia’s danger and their ignorance of what the Church teaches is something that must be changed before it expands, said Patricia Murphy, assistant professor of moral theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto.
“Catholics should be shocked, outraged — and very concerned about where this is going.”
“Even if they were not engaged on this issue before, I hope that Canadians — especially Catholics — will step up now. I hope they will talk to their friends, families and colleagues about what is really going on. If Catholics remain passive, the results will be disastrous, especially for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.”
While only six U.S. states and the District of Columbia now have legalized medically assisted suicide, any changes north of the border could significantly influence the handling of the matter in the United States, as well.
“No country in the world that has had some form of assisted suicide or euthanasia has been able to confine it to just the terminally ill. It has always started that way, but has gradually progressed to the nonterminal, which ends up including psychiatric patients,” said pro-life activist Dr. Mark Komrad, a psychiatrist and medical ethicist on the faculty of psychiatry at John Hopkins and the University of Maryland.
“I actually think that the cultural similarities and geographic proximity in Canada will make the metastatic spread of this remarkable and unfortunate social policy meme even more likely to spread to the U.S.”
Charles Lewis is a Toronto-based freelance writer who writes mainly about Catholic issues. He has also given numerous presentations against assisted suicide and euthanasia.