Off the Hook?
Canadian pro-lifers fear a judge's dismissal of murder charges against a doctor who hastened a patient's death may lead to a push for changes in the country's Criminal Code
Canada's euthanasia debate intensified late last month with a judge's decision to throw out first-degree murder charges against a Nova Scotia doctor in the death of a terminally ill cancer patient.
Halifax respirologist Dr. Nancy Morrison was charged with first-degree murder last May after it was alleged she administered potassium chloride to Paul Mills, 66, a Moncton, New Brunswick man undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus.
“It is my opinion that a jury properly instructed would not convict the accused of the offense charged, or any other offense, and therefore she is hereby dismissed,” said Judge Hughes Randall of Nova Scotia provincial court.
The prosecution must now decide if it will let the Hughes decision stand, appeal it to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, or prefer another indictment against Morrison.
“The prosecution service has already indicated that we felt manslaughter would be an appropriate charge in the case and we would consider that certainly in arriving at a decision as to what indictment to prefer,” Nova Scotia Crown attorney Craig Botterill said in response to the Randall ruling.
Morrison's defense team argued throughout the case that their client acted in Mills's best interests. “This is not a case of doctor-assisted suicide, mercy killing, or euthanasia,” said defense attorney Joel Pink. “This is a case where we have a caring doctor who is interested in comforting her patient who was dying, in the final dying processes.”
Mills died Nov. 10, 1996, nearly two months after being admitted to Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Center in Halifax, where Morrison served as an intensive care duty officer.
The hospital conducted an internal investigation of Morrison's action, but other than suspending Morrison from intensive care duty, little action was taken. Acting on information from a colleague who described Morrison's action as “active euthanasia,” police arrested Morrison May 6, 1997, and filed first-degree murder charges.
During testimony at preliminary hearings, Morrison said the potassium chloride was used to ease Mills's suffering. However an attending nurse later testified she had never before seen potassium chloride administered to patients in similar circumstances.
Pro-lifers monitoring the case accept that Mills was suffering greatly and that he was in the final stages of life. Nonetheless they are troubled by the notion that some medical professionals would take steps to hasten death.
The arrest immediately sparked a nation-wide debate on euthanasia and assisted-suicide in Canada. Pro-euthanasia forces hailed Morrison as a victim of outdated legislation, and a Halifax resident circulated a 5,000-name petition urging the Crown to drop all charges.
A publication ban has muted the pro-life response to Judge Randall's decision, nonetheless some groups fear the move will lead to greater public acceptance of euthanasia and assisted-suicide.
“If indeed this physician hastened the death of her patient, we are heading for perilous times,” said Mary Ellen Douglas, a national organizer with the pro-life group, Campaign Life Coalition.
Douglas said the Morrison case is an ideal time to remind legislators and justice officials to enforce existing laws against euthanasia.
“The law must protect our most vulnerable citizens,” Douglas said. “And those who would kill them must be told that such actions are not tolerated in our society.”
Douglas also expressed fear that right-to—die advocates will seize on the Morrison decision to step up demands for a change in the Criminal Code with respect to assisted suicide.
For Cynthia Clarke, a director of Campaign Life Coalition Nova Scotia, the Morrison case underscores the confusion surrounding the country's euthanasia laws.
“Although the laws on the books are necessary to protect us from those who might choose our time of death, perhaps the physicians' concerns should be listened to as well,” Clarke told the Register. “What many are saying is that with all the medical advances available to prolong life, doctors are caught often interfering with someone's natural dying process. Doctors are not seeking permission to kill, but guidelines for patient treatment in terminal cases.”
Clarke also said Morrison should not be seen as a Canadian version of suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian. She admitted however that Morrison's actions will be used by right-to-die activists to further their agenda.
The Morrison case adds to the pro-lifers' fears of a relaxed attitude towards involuntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. Last December, a judge imposed an extremely lenient sentence on Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer, who murdered his severely disabled daughter. The judge accepted a “compassionate homicide” argument to dispense with the mandatory ten-year prison term for second—degree murder cases. Latimer was sentenced to two-years, less a day, most of it to be served on his family farm, near Wilkie, Saskatchewan.
Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.