Anti-euthanasia advocates step up for the vulnerable

  • December 7, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO - Doctors, politicians, Christian clergy, disability rights activists and medical students among others from across Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia are joining forces to reverse the growing push to legalize euthanasia and assisted-suicide.

About 320 people met in a Toronto hotel for the First International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, “Current Issues, Future Directions,” Nov. 30 to Dec. 1.

“The culture is shifting to this new radical individualism,” said Alex Schadenberg, director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition based in London, Ont., and chief symposium organizer.

After Schadenberg attended the World Federation of the Right to Die conference last year he realized the anti-right to die movement also needed to get organized and start meeting and working together in a similar fashion. 

Currently the pro-euthanasia movement is gaining strength, making the case that it should not be a state obligation to give people the right to die, said Schadenberg. 

“We’re trying to change the question,” he said. “We want people asking, ‘Is it a threat to the most vulnerable people in society?’ ”   

This single issue is bringing people with otherwise diverse interests and lifestyles together to network and build coalitions.

“It’s incredibly important to exchange ideas because it’s a worldwide issue and we need to work together,” said Alison Davis, director of the disabled rights’ group No Less Human in Dorset, England. 

“This is like the who’s who of the anti-euthanasia community,” Bradely Mattes, executive director of Life Issues Institute in Cincinnati. 

“An outrageous number of baby boomers are becoming seniors,” said Mattes. “Society is setting up for strong incentives for widespread euthanasia.”

The anti-euthanasia movement has received widespread support from members of disability rights movements who fear the disabled may lose their right to live as in the high profile stories of Canadian Tracy Latimer or American Terri Schiavo. Latimer, a severely disabled child, had her life taken by her father, Robert, who is serving a sentence for killing her, while Schiavo, who was in a persistent vegetative state, had the plugged pulled on her by her husband against her family’s wishes.

“We don’t speak with one voice as disabled people, but we’ve come to a consensus around end of life issues,” said Catherine Frazee, co-ordinator of Ryerson University Institute for Disability Studies in Toronto. 

In her workshop she urged the group to develop a manifesto of core values to advance the social movement as a unified voice, which is what the pro-euthanasia movement is doing.

“The movement (to legalize euthanasia) has become much more organized in the past five years,” said Wesley Smith, an American attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

“Our challenge is to redefine the debate. The reason the other side has gained so much traction is they’ve gained the imagination of society,” said Hugh Scher, a Toronto-based constitutional lawyer specializing in disability issues.

Oregon is the only state in the United States to legalize euthanasia. But former Washington governor Booth Gardner  plans to change that. Disabled by Parkinson’s disease, he is lobbying to legalize assisted suicide in a voter referendum to be held next year. Washington held a similar referendum in 1991, as has California, Michigan and Maine in the years since. And in Montana, two terminally ill men and four physicians have filed a lawsuit against the state and attorney general Mike McGrath aimed at decriminalizing assisted suicide.

Euthanasia advocates “want one more notch in their lethal injection syringe,” said Rita Marker, executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. She added that supporters of euthanasia think one more state will act as a domino effect with other states soon to follow. 

“For the next year we are all Washingtonians and do all we can to protect the law from going through there,” said Marker, arguing that what happens in Washington will set a precedent for legalization in Canada.

Marker gave some tips on how to spread the anti-euthanasia message. Word choice matters, she said, urging people to avoid replacing terms like assisted suicide with terminology like death with dignity. Get the media to tell anti-euthanasia stories such as peoples’ personal decisions to choose life. Form coalitions with seniors, the gay community, ethnic communities.  

“We have to have the energy to move forward with a culture of life and it starts with you and I,” said Schadenberg. 

The next international symposium will tentatively be held in Milwaukee in 2009, regional symposiums will continue in the meantime. 

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