TORONTO — Church and pro-life organizations in Canada are appalled by a light jail sentence given a Toronto doctor for assisting in the death of a depressed but otherwise viable patient.
Dr. Maurice Genereux, a Toronto AIDS specialist, was sentenced to two years less a day May 13 for prescribing powerful sleeping pills in 1996 to two depressed male patients who wanted to end their lives.
Genereux, who also received three-years probation, is the first doctor in North America to be convicted of assisting a suicide.
The doctor pleaded guilty to the assisted-suicide charges last December.
Genereux patient Aaron McGinn died of an overdose, while a second patient survived after a friend intervened and called an ambulance. That patient has since filed a civil suit against Genereux for medical malpractice.
Groups advocating for the rights of the disabled have suggested the two-year sentence makes light of Genereux's action. They say the sentence should serve as a warning to other suicide-dealing doctors who promote death for the disabled, the depressed, and other vulnerable patients.
Toronto attorney Hugh Scher, a spokesman for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), described Genereux as a doctor who was “out of control.”
“Two years less a day in effect trivializes this doctor's acts,” Scher told the Register. “Dr. Genereux breached the most fundamental code of ethics in the medical profession by choosing to end life rather than preserving it.”
Scher said the CCD was hoping the government would press for a longer jail sentence to deter like-minded physicians. Under Canadian law, the maximum sentence for assisting a suicide is 14 years in prison. The government had sought a six-year sentence and is appealing the two-year term given Genereux.
Ontario Crown Prosecutor Attorney Michael Leshner described Genereux's actions as “the worst thing a doctor could have done.” He added that while a prison sentence was appropriate, the presiding judge should have sent a stronger message by way of a longer term.
Genereux's defense team, meanwhile, has appealed the sentence and has secured the doctor's release after posting $5,000 bail.
The trial unearthed a number of sordid details about Genereux's medical practice. He had been stripped of his medical license for incidents of professional misconduct and improper contact with patients. Many former patients testified that Genereux was too eager to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to patients who were depressed or who had expressed suicidal wishes. The majority of Genereux's patients were homosexuals, many of whom were HIV positive.
The Genereux case has sent a disturbing message to those concerned about the rights and protection of the disabled. Last December, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Ted Noble imposed a lenient sentence on Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer for the murder of his severely disabled daughter. The judge justified the sentence on the grounds that Latimer's action was a “compassionate homicide.” At the time, Catholic Church and pro-life groups criticized the decision for its implication that crimes against the disabled are not punished in the same way as crimes against able-bodied persons.
Scher said the Latimer and Genereux cases were not completely alike, but that there are parallels in areas of breach of trust that Genereux and Latimer held over their victims. While Latimer killed his daughter by carbon monoxide poisoning, Genereux provided patients with “a pharmaceutical gun” by which they could kill themselves, Scher said.
“While this case does not impact directly on people with disabilities, what is relevant to us is the fact that Dr. Genereux, a person in a position of trust and authority in the health care profession, prescribed pharmaceuticals for the purpose of killing people,” Scher said. “If Dr. Genereux was prepared to do that, then people with disabilities have to be concerned that other doctors may also perceive our lives as somehow being less worthy or not worth living, and take actions to end our lives.”
Scher said that without reassurance from the Canadian legal system — in the form of stiff penalties — the disabled have reasons to fear for their safety. He also said the Genereux case highlights the need for legal prohibitions against assisted suicide.
“If the law does not recognize the gravity of the offense and lay a significant sentence in punishment, then this will definitely put people with disabilities in a position of peril,” Scher said.
Other commentators, from pro-life to law reform groups, have also criticized the sentencing of Genereux. Dr. Philip Hebert, head of the University of Toronto medical school's bioethics department, told The Toronto Sun newspaper that the two-year sentence suggests society is not treating crimes against the disabled and vulnerable very seriously. Hebert said it is a mistake for doctors to help suicidal but otherwise healthy patients to kill themselves.
Cheryl Eckstein, president and founder of the Compassionate Healthcare Network in Vancouver, British Columbia, described Genereux's sentencing as reprehensible.
“The fact that Genereux provided seriously depressed patients lethal amounts of medication, knowing his patients were intent on committing suicide, is absolutely abhorrent and unconscionable behavior,” she said.
“I think such sentences cheapen life. I am deeply concerned that another message going out is that depression isn't treatable — of course, that is nonsense.” Tom Reilly, a spokesman for the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops’ social affairs committee has yet to respond to news of the Genereux sentencing.
“This is a matter that would be of definite interest to the bishops’ conference,” Reilly said. “It will likely be on the agenda when the committee next meets.”
Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.