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Assisted Suicide Acquittal Sparks Review of Canadian Law

BY Steve Weatherbe

Dec. 19, 2004-Jan. 1, 2005 Issue | Posted 12/19/04 at 1:00 PM

 

DUNCAN, (British Columbia) — A jury had scarcely finished acquitting a proponent of assisted-suicide charges in this western Canadian province when supporters were calling on the Canadian government to decriminalize assisted suicide when performed by “professionals.”

Evelyn Martens was cleared of two counts of assisting suicide Nov. 4, and the Canadian government announced it would revisit the country's law against the practice.

“Put it in the hands of specialists,” Martens' lawyer, Catherine Tyhurst, told reporters outside the courtroom in this small, Vancouver Island mill town, seconds after her client's not-guilty verdict. “Put it in the hands of doctors. Put it in the hands of people other than members of the public, but regulate it in some fashion.”

Spokespersons for the disabled and right-to-life organizations swiftly warned that the law must stay in place to protect the vulnerable from those with selfish or misguided reasons for wanting their death.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 18, Canada's justice minister, Irwin Cotler, told the House of Commons Justice Committee that the chamber should hold a “take-note” debate without a vote to instigate a public discussion.

“I think it may be appropriate to offer the opportunity for this discussion,” Cotler said. “I don't think there should be a rush to judgment until we say we are as properly informed as we deserve to be to make the most appropriate principled judgment in this regard.”

Two years of investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the testimony of dozens of witnesses were not enough to bring a conviction against Martens, the 74-year-old membership director for the Victoria-based Right-to-Die Society. She was charged with helping two women asphyxiate themselves in 2002: Ley-anne Burchell, a teacher with terminal stomach cancer, and Monique Cha-rest, a death-obsessed and depressed former nun.

Despite the presence of the society's custom-made helium “exit bags” and helium tanks found in Martens' car immediately after Burchell's death — and an eyewitness account of Cha-rest using the gear to kill herself with Martens at her side — the jury apparently believed the defense argument and medical testimony that the cause of the two deaths was uncertain.

All Martens had done, Tyhurst said, was provide emotional support.

“It's unbelievable,” said Beverly Welsh, a right-to-life activist in British Columbia, who took daily notes for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition at the three-week trial. “It's all misplaced sympathy. The defense and media made Martens out to be acting from compassion. But what Charest needed was professional help for her depression and medical help for her ailments.”

Vulnerable and Dependent

No definitive cause of death could be shown in either case, though a Right-to-Die Society associate testified in the Charest case that she left Martens in the room with Charest after the latter had connected the plastic bag to the helium and pulled the bag over her own head. And police who were investigating Martens for Charest's death found Burchell's body right after she was paid a visit by their suspect.

Welsh believes the jury should have inferred that Martens tightened the bag around Charest's neck.

The prosecution, moreover, argued that the evidence that Martens was the supplier of both the technology and technical expertise was enough to convict.

Charest was convinced — in spite of what her doctors told her — that she was doomed to die of porphyria, a rare disease that killed her father at age 64, her own age when she died. Medical practitioners testified they were treating her for back problems, a blood clot on her lungs and depression.

The jury also heard how Charest's preoccupation with death had alienated her friends.

Charest's case is an example of the danger presented by the assisted-suicide and euthanasia movements, according to Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

“People who are elderly and ill are vulnerable and dependent. What a caring society should do is provide help with their problems,” he said.

Schadenberg told the Register about an Ontario man suffering from dwarfism who had to fight medical practitioners for treatment for various associated ailments. The doctors wanted to treat his pain but not cure the problems. “They wondered whether it was ethical to treat him at all for his hernia, because it would just prolong his life.”

Agreed Alberta disability-rights activist Mark Pickup: “Is the issue one of choice in dying? No, it's something larger. The bigotry of utilitarianism. If Granny Martens helped a depressed, suicidal — but healthy — teen-ager commit suicide, she would be universally reviled. Are the incurably ill or disabled lives not worth living? Is it okay to assist them in death?”

Dutch Example

Schadenberg insisted the acquittal was not a test or rejection of the law against assisted suicide, but based instead on lack of evidence.

Canadian juries have delivered convictions in assisted-suicide cases: against Julianna Zsiros of Victoria last year for helping a roommate asphyxiate herself, and against Ontario doctor Maurice Genereaux in 1998.

A decade ago, a Victoria woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) gained national celebrity with her unsuccessful court challenge of the assisted-suicide law. At that time, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the right to security of the disabled and elderly trumped Sue Rodriguez' claim to a right to die. After her suicide, Svend Robinson, a prominent left-wing member of Parliament and supporter, was briefly investigated as a possible assistant in her death.

The same year, a Saskatchewan court convicted farmer Robert Latimer for killing his daughter, Tracey, who had cerebral palsy.

In the four years following, according to research by professor Dick Sobsey of the University of Alberta, in Canada there was a 47% increase in the number of murders of children by their parents, which he attributed to sympathetic media coverage of Latimer.

In 2001, several polls indicated that only 30% of Canadians found doctor-assisted suicide to be immoral.

Schadenberg responded to Tyhurst's call for regulation rather than criminalization of assisted suicide by noting that regulation in the Netherlands has provided no protection. He said the majority of doctors in an anonymous survey admitted they do not report when they have euthanized patients, as required by law. Moreover, many euthanize without consulting with the patient or family, also as required by law.

The Catholic Civil Rights League, a Toronto-based lay Catholic lobby group, warned that evidence from the Netherlands shows that Tyhurst's “experts” were not to be trusted with the rights of the disabled and elderly. League president Philip Horgan said, “We believe any such liberalization would only lead us down a slippery slope similar to what we have seen following the liberalization of abortion laws 35 years ago.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.