QUEBEC CITY — Quebec is North America’s most European jurisdiction, but this doesn’t appear to be an asset in terms of valuing human life, economic health or the preservation of its Catholic heritage.
The predominantly French-speaking Canadian province has this continent’s lowest birth rate, at 1.5 children per woman, the highest debt-to-GDP ratio at 94%, the lowest weekly church attendance at 6% of residents — and soon, if its separatist Parti Quebecois government has its way, it will add euthanasia to the list of dubious similarities.
However, the term "euthanasia" doesn’t appear anywhere in the Quebec government’s Bill 52, "An Act Respecting End-of-Life Care." While it offers doctor-applied fatal injections to those wishing to escape painful, terminal illnesses, it calls this "palliative care … including terminal palliative sedation and medical aid in dying."
But palliative care and euthanasia are crucially different, the province’s dwindling number of practicing Catholics have protested, joined by overworked terminal-care specialists. Three of the latter — the directors of palliative care at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, Montreal General Hospital and McGill University Health Centre — commented in the Montreal Gazette, "If we were to build a bridge and 90% of the engineers felt the design was dangerous, there would be a public outcry. Why is there no such outcry in Quebec in response to Bill 52, which the great majority of palliative-care providers oppose?"
Declared the three palliative-care experts, "‘Medical aid in dying,’ as defined in this bill, is in fact a specific act to end a person’s life. This is euthanasia. It is contrary to the goals of palliative care," which, they stressed, "improves the quality of life of patients but neither hastens nor postpones death."
One reason neither the public nor Quebec’s two opposition parties oppose Bill 52 is a consequence of its shift away from its Catholic past. Given a dominant position by the French Ancien Regime that was later endorsed in 1774 by the territory’s British conquerors, the local Church retained its immense social and moral influence over Quebec’s Francophone population until the province’s "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s.
Since then, a process of rapid secularization following the European model has been under way in the Canadian province. The trend has accelerated under the governance of Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who assumed power following the September 2012 provincial election as the leader of a minority government.
The Parti Quebecois regime recently unveiled a proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which, if enacted, would formally define the Canadian province as a secular state.
In concert with proposed changes to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedom, the new charter would prohibit all public workers in Quebec from almost any form of religious dress, including the display of crucifixes. And while some forms of "religious accommodation" remain under discussion, Bernard Drainville, the government minister responsible for the proposed policies, has publicly stated that any accommodation must "respect basic Quebec values, such as the equality of women and men and the state’s religious neutrality."
The province is also seeking to remove any explanation of the reasons for religious belief from the teaching of a provincially mandated religion and ethics course, even when the course is taught in Catholic schools. Montreal’s Loyola High School has mounted a legal challenge against the ban on teaching its students about why Catholics hold their beliefs. The case is scheduled to be heard next year by the Supreme Court of Canada.
"We just want to teach [the course] from a Catholic point of view," Loyola Principal Paul Donovan told Canada’s National Post.
Bishops’ Muted Protest
Aware of their diminished voice in contemporary Quebec, the province’s bishops have issued a relatively muted protest against Bill 52, terming the euthanasia legislation "disquieting" and "banalizing." They also cited the provincial need for better palliative care instead.
In fact, Quebec was 110 palliative beds short of the government’s own minimum goal in 2011; half of its palliative beds are in hospitals rather than special centers, and many Quebeckers don’t want to die in either setting. Eighty percent of cancer patients wish to die at home, for example; but because support workers are lacking, only 10% can do so. And 50% of cancer patients do not receive adequate treatment for their pain.
One key reason Quebeckers support the bill, says Alex Schadenberg, head of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, based in London, Ontario, is that "they don’t understand its content." A poll released by Life Canada found 75% of those polled expressed support for Bill 52, but only 30% knew that it legalized euthanasia.
Few also are aware of how legalizing euthanasia in Belgium and Holland had encouraged illegal killings, performed without consent of the person killed. "According to a Canadian Medical Association study of assisted deaths in Belgium in 2010," said Schadenberg, "32% were done without consent."
When informed about this in the poll commissioned by Life Canada, Quebeckers’ outright approval dropped to 35%, with 47% wanting more study.
Schadenberg warns that Bill 52 in its current form is open to similar abuse, especially towards the euthanizing of newborn children with disabilities.
"The bill will put tremendous pressure on parents in the initial shock and disappointment to consent to terminating disabled children," he predicted.
Autonomy and Separatism
Despite the criticisms directed against it, Bill 52 moved one step closer to becoming law on Oct. 29, when it received approval "in principle" in the provincial Legislature by a 84-26 margin.
Euthanasia is popular, suggests Douglas Farrow, a McGill University religious studies professor, because the government is tying it to the idea of individual autonomy, although he suspects the bill is really primarily "a cost-cutting measure" intended to reduce palliative-care expenditures.
As a pointed challenge to Judeo-Christian ethics, says professor Farrow, Bill 52 also dovetails nicely with the government’s program of "quite militant secularism." In fact, although the proposed Quebec Charter of Values is viewed as being primarily targeted against the face coverings favored by some Muslim women, the inclusion of Catholic crucifixes in the prohibition has not caused much protest.
"The secularization charter is one more step in a 50-year enterprise by all political parties, not just the Parti Quebecois, to extract religion and the religious voice from the public square," said Farrow’s wife, Anna Farrow, executive director of the Montreal English-Speaking Catholic Council.
Many believe that the Parti Quebecois government is also pursuing euthanasia to advance separatism. Says Nicolas Steenhaut, executive director of the Montreal-based Vivre dans la Dignité (Live With Dignity), "For them, it is a win-win. If the bill becomes law, they get what they want. If the federal government challenges the bill, it gives them one more way to drum up separatist support."
The Quebec government says that Bill 52, as a health matter, falls within provincial jurisdiction. But under Canada’s Criminal Code, which is federal, euthanasia is still murder legally. "If the federal government doesn’t challenge it," said Steenhaut, "we are prepared to do so."
Uncertain Judicial Outcome
The Parti Quebecois’ federal counterpart, the Bloc Quebecois, has introduced assisted-suicide legislation in the federal House of Commons several times in recent years, always to be resoundingly defeated.
But if the nation’s federal legislators are collectively opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia, its judges are much less so.
Though the Supreme Court of Canada rejected assisted suicide 20 years ago, it left the door open to change its own mind if a strong consensus developed for assisted suicide.
Polling indicates such a swing may well have taken place, and another assisted-suicide case is already on its way to the Supreme Court from British Columbia — next to Quebec, the country’s most liberal province.
Steve Weatherbe writes
from Victoria, blogging at Faithvictoria’s blog.
Catholic News Agency and Register staff contributed to this report.