What will be the new face of euthanasia look like?

Hey guys, first of all Happy Holidays from your friends here at UTSFL. Now onto the main topic: a few weeks ago the always brilliant Margaret Summerville made a speech here at U of T on the subject of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, a topic which is of great relevance to us today because, at this moment as many of you know, the Supreme Court is reviewing a motion from British Columbia about whether to revisit legalizing euthanasia, on a flimsy legal technicality that would overrule an earlier 1993 case which held that Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia were constitutionally illegal. Dr. Summerville also mentioned similar cases going on right now in Belgium where they, after legalizing euthanasia a number of years ago, are at this moment in discussion about whether to allow euthanasia in cases of minors below the age of 18, an extremely troubling concept I will get to later on.

However, as I was doing my research for this topic, I found that euthanasia was not a debate that was limited to Canada and Belgium. A brief Google search revealed a powerfully worded article from New Zealand condemning euthanasia on demand (citing, who else, Margaret Summerville) in regards to a euthanasia on demand bill proposed by an MP; a report from the French government’s president Francois Hollande recommending that French law continue to prohibit legal euthanasia, and a newsbyte from  Ireland indicating a grassroots movements to challenge those countries’ laws on the subject, and that was without even scrolling to the bottom of the page! It seems that all over the world people and governments are grappling with the issue of whether or not doctors, or anyone else for that matter, have the right to kill other people, and whether or not that decision should be effected by whether they wanted to die or not.

It seems ironic therefore that with all the worldwide debate on this issue that I found the best articulation of my feelings on the issue right here at home in the pages of the Globe and Mail from an article written 2 months ago (I know I am seriously behind on blogging but bear with me). Okay it wasn’t the Globe and Mail itself, but rather the Globe’s recitation of the argument made by the government in regards to the British Colombia case. In it, the government argues the case for the slippery slope that could lead people to taking their own lives in a moment of weakness. We often hear the slippery slope argument maligned in our society, and indeed it is often used irresponsibly, but in this situation, in my mind at least, it rings true.

After all, we all remember those people who said (and still do say) that abortion would, once legalized, be used in the vast majority of cases for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest or those pregnancies that risked the mother’s life, despite the fact that these cases represent the tiniest fraction of the actual uses of abortion. These cases appeal to the sense of compassion that we have, and indeed should have, when we are confronted with cases of people in awful situations that they didn’t ask for, trying to do the best they can. We as pro-lifers know the arguments, we know that the life that is about to be taken is valuable, that an innocent child should not held accountable for the crimes of its father, and that abortion will not undo the incredible trauma the women experiences, but will only make another victim. But for all of this, we should have a hard time being strong in our convictions for that person, just as we should have a hard time holding the hand of a person with advanced ALS and telling them that their life is valuable, that their worth comes, not from what they can do or how much pain they are in, but from who they are, even when the pain in their lives makes that life seem like they are not worth living. These situations don’t mean we are wrong, it means we are human.

However the question to me that this watershed moment of euthanasia debate worldwide evokes is, what next? What will be the consequences of this debate; where are we headed in terms of euthanasia? If indeed we do legalize euthanasia, in twenty years will the average patient asking their doctor to kill them look like a terminally ill patient in great pain with only hours left of life, or will they look like someone else? One of the article I looked at mentioned the possibility of “euthanasia counselling” in Belgium for those over the age of 80, where the government sends people to talk about whether euthanasia is right for them given their advanced age. Will the new face of euthanasia look like a terminally ill person, or an octogenarian convinced that their life has no value by people who don’t want to pay for their medical bills. Such pressure might seem absurd now, but the idea of one person legally killing another person seemed absurd not too long ago.

And then there are of course people with disabilities, particularly those with mental health issues who would, in my mind be particularly vulnerable. One of the key definitions of a person with mental health problems who needs society’s immediate help is intent to harm themselves or others, but what do we do to help these people if harming oneself becomes such a fundamental right that others must help you in your self destruction? Will the new face of euthanasia be a person in chronic unendurable pain or a person with a disease of the mind, a person with clinical depression who, in a moment of weakness brought about by a chemical imbalance, decides to ask a doctor, a person whom society sees as a trusted lifesaving professional, to take their life, but who, with the right medication, could live a normal life like the rest of us. This might seem like something that society would never allow, but are we are really so confident in our justice system and the will of our governments to take on controversial topics, that we can be certain that they will make a legal code so airtight as to remove all the loopholes? Or will the government, as they have done so often before with problems that were made without their consent, ignore the problem and hope it goes away?

And finally there are children: not only is there the disgusting examples of the Gottingen protocol in the Netherlands which allows a grace period to kill disabled children after they are born (believe me I couldn’t make this stuff up) but there is the example I cited earlier on in this post, about extending euthanasia to minors, which to me is a colossal problem in its own right. As of course you all know, children and particularly teenagers have a reputation of seeing the world through the lenses of, shall we say, the melodramatic. I certainly did, and I’m betting that if you look back at your own experiences you will find an instance or two of drama in your teenage years as well. Everything seems like it matters so much more when you are in high school, getting a date can make you feel like you are king of the world, but a bad grade, a stinging comment, a failed relationship, all of these things can make you feel like the world has just come to an cataclysmic end. Now imagine that there was someone there at your lowest moment of in life, someone telling you that there was a way to end it all, that death wasn’t a big deal and that the romance of dying young would teach everyone who had laughed at you how wrong they were. Now imagine that person was a doctor, someone whose job and status made you trust them implicitly, a person for whom your life long attendance at his appointments and your disclosure to him or your most personal medical secrets made you feel that you had a deep personal connection with them. Quick what would you do?

Because that’s the dirty little secret about the face of euthanasia if it was made legal on demand, it’s all of us. All of us have moments in our lives when we are low, not just those with incurable excruciating physical diseases. And that’s why we don’t as a society have doctors who make their money from providing the service of murder, convincing those among us who feel low that they have nowhere to go but down. We are at an unprecedented watershed, my friends, a point where we decide internationally the value of human life and whether those who help save it should also have the power to end it. The choice, like all choices in a democratic society inevitably falls to you.

Anyway this is my opinion about the issue, but I’m infinitely more interested in yours. What do you think the new face of euthanasia will look like? Will it be confined to only the small number of terminally ill patients in pain or proliferate to others? What do you think of the issue more broadly? Pro assisted suicide? Against it? Somewhere in between? Never really thought about it? Tired of the maniac on the message board asking you how you feel about these things? Please leave a comment in the comment section. Anything you have to say about the issue from any point of view (even if it’s to tell me that I am 100% wrong on everything, not the least of which being my atrocious grammar) is greatly appreciated.

1 Comment on “What will be the new face of euthanasia look like?

  1. Quite an interesting blog post! You certainly bring to light a number of potential situations that most people don’t consider when discussing euthanasia, situations which should definitely alarm individuals who may be supportive of, or at least ambivalent to, the practice’s legalization. To be honest, though, I’m not sure if the slippery slope would extend quite as far as you propose (to the point of doctors being more than happy to help depressed teenagers end it all or seniors being killed for financial expediency.) There is a qualitative difference between the slippery slope in abortion, and that in euthanasia. In the former case, abortion on demand has been socially accepted not because it is considered the best situation for the fetus, but because the rights and perceived humanity of the fetus have been completely abrogated, allowing society and individuals to do what is convenient without troubling their conscience. Euthanasia, on the other hand, needs to pass a stiffer test before it is applied. Our society has not yet “progressed” to an Orwellian dystopia where individuals are expendable for the greater good of the state. Even the lives of murderers are protected (in Canada, if not in the United States), at an economic loss to the country, because we don’t believe we have the right to artificially shorten a life in order to benefit others. (I will not get into how the obvious dissonance this creates for pro-abortion advocates and the attempted mental gymnastics associated, as that would require a separate blog post.) I seriously doubt that physicians would be quick to participate in euthanizing their patients, and consequently run the risk of being painted as murderers in the event that conflicting evidence about consent arises, unless said consent is crystal-clear, persistently unchanging, and obviously the product of a sound mind.
    That being said, I am not arguing in favour of limited legalization of assisted suicide. From the practical standpoint, the opportunity for misapplication, however small, is still extant. The risk is too great. But the question, for me at least, is a philosophical one as much as it is a practical one. It is one which I have struggled with, to be sure. I consider myself to be pro-life, and normally it is an easy position to defend, in that I can constantly revert back to the central argument that no one has the right to take away the life of another individual, for whatever reason. But does that prohibition extend to oneself? How much personal autonomy does one really have, and should one’s conscience and mind have the capacity to artificially end the physical life to which it is attached? Until the dawn of the euthanasia movement, this has been more of an academic question than a legal one, since a successful suicide attempt leave’s the “perpetrator” far beyond the reaches of the long arm of the law. But I think this is a question which needs to be addressed, as much as the practical and logistical implications of euthanasia, as our politicians, lawyers and citizens continue to hash out the ramifications of legalizing assisted suicide.
    Sorry, I guess I started to respond to your post, and then began to wax philosophical (I tend to do that from time to time…) But in short, my answer to your question is opposition to legalized assisted suicide: practically indefensible, and ethically troubling.

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