Suicide Eve? Canada's House of Commons' Halloween Killing Vote

OTTAWA — Canada's House of Commons is planning a Halloween vote on whether to legalize assisted suicide.

The legislative body, which broke with traditional morality earlier this year by legalizing same-sex “marriage,” will vote Oct. 31 on a bill allowing assisted suicide and, opponents charge, active euthanasia.

“You could drive a hearse through the holes in this legislation,” contended Mark Pickup, head of Human Life Matters, an Alberta-based organization that helps churches minister to the disabled.

Officially, Bill C-407 is an “orphan” (a private member's bill) introduced by Bloc Quebecois Member of Parliament Francine Lalonde. Because it lacks official endorsement from the government, it would in the normal course of events die on the order paper.

The legal picture for euthanasia is murkier. In 1994, the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly rejected a constitutional challenge to the law banning euthanasia. Since then, juries have both acquitted and convicted those accused of assisting suicides, though in recent years convictions have drawn reduced, even suspended, sentences. Parliament has rejected several attempts at legalization.

A 2003 poll showed 49% of Canadians supporting assisted suicide and 37% opposing it.

The bill would entitle a person diagnosed with a “terminal illness” or experiencing “severe physical or mental pain,” to receive help committing suicide or to euthanasia, provided a “medical practitioner” is assisting the euthanizer in some unspecified way, and provided the would-be suicide makes written requests twice over an 11-day period while “appearing to be lucid.”

“There is the appearance of guidelines,” said Pickup, a 52-year-old forced to retire from the civil service and now confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis. “But this would open the door to wide-open euthanasia.”

For Pickup, a Catholic, the appearance of “lucidity” would open the door especially to those newly stricken with severe physical injuries or depression.

“Ninety-five percent of people who suffer a spinal cord injury say they would choose assisted suicide if they could get it — in the first year after the injury. But after five years, that goes down to 5%,” said Pickup. The bill, however, requires a person in suffering to hold on to their suicidal thoughts for 11 days.

In the course of his own disease, Pickup has suffered “a series of shocks,” each followed by a bout of severe depression.

“If someone had said to me 21 years ago, ‘This will be your life from now on,’ I would have said, ‘that is no life,’” he said. “But today, my life still has quality. My standards have changed. Life is no longer physical. It is more about loving and being loved.”

Pickup also worries about the “extraordinary vulnerability” of disabled people, whose lives are constantly devalued by the able-bodied, even by the medical profession who short-change the disabled when allotting scarce services or equipment on the basis their lives hold less value.

Faced with such attitudes from their care-givers and society, says Pickup, the disabled might accede to pressure to bow out gracefully if it becomes legal.

Several Canadian bishops have condemned the bill, none in stronger terms than Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ontario. In a letter he had read in every church in his diocese he stated, “Whether it is called euthanasia, or mercy-killing, or doctor-assisted suicide, the reality is that this bill proposes to make murder legal in our country.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “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.”

It goes on to say, “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.” (Nos. 2277-2278).

Alex Schadenberg, head of the Ontario-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said “Canadians should be very concerned about this legislation.” He worries that its backers may try to slide it past second reading as a “work in progress” that will be perfected in committee stage.

Schadenberg said the bill's reliance on “medical practitioners” is a weak spot, since this undefined category is broad enough to include anyone in health care.

He and Pickup both worry that governments will come to prefer quick and cheap terminations to lengthy and costly palliative care, if Bill C-407 opens the door.

Lalonde, however, denied that her bill will reduce efforts to upgrade palliative care. She has told reporters her bill is about showing compassion for those that medicine cannot help or for whom adequate palliative care is unavailable.

“Some situations bring with them complaints that cannot be helped,” she said. “This is not euthanasia. This is the right to die with dignity.”

“The bill honors the autonomy of the individual, the right to self-determination. But it does not go nearly far enough,” bioethicist Eike Kluge of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, said.

Even if it passed, he explained, there would still be no legislative protection for doctors who seek to provide “fair and easy passage” from life for those in a permanent vegetative state with no opportunity to take the advance steps specified in the bill.

Currently, such people are “tortured to life,” by legal requirements on the medical profession to use all possible means to sustain their lives.

Kluge, who advises the British Columbia government on bioethical issues, dismissed religious objections to the bill as automatically disqualified by the constitutional sanctions against religious discrimination.

“Any law based on such considerations would be ruled ultra vires (beyond the power or means of) by the courts,” he said.

However, it is clear that objections that are based on the dignity of the human person may not be disqualified simply because they are also religiously based.

At a recent forum on euthanasia and assisted suicide in Victoria, the predominant reason that emerged from the overwhelmingly pro-euthanasia crowd was the pain suffered by dying friends and loved ones in the hands of the apparently uncaring and undeniably overworked public health system.

The answer, according to Bishop Fabbro, is not euthanasia but “universal palliative and hospice care for the dying, more research and training in the field of pain control, better-funded home-care so that loved ones can be looked after in a comfortable environment as they face their final days.”

As Register went to press, it obtained an internal Justice Ministry briefing, indicating Justice Minister Irwin Cotler's intention to oppose the bill, principally for its lack of safeguards. In order to prevent “the unwanted death of elderly, physically or mentally vulnerable persons, a very stringent regime would have to be introduced, and Bill C-407 falls short of accomplishing this,” it states in part.

Commented Schadenberg: “We should remain concerned because the minister of justice does not state that they do not support a future bill to legalize euthanasia or assisted suicide, he only says that he doesn't support Bill C-407. Nonetheless, we must take our little victories where ever they are found and continue to persevere.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.