Alex Schadenberg said he and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition will continue to be a voice in the fight against assisted suicide. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Coalition marks 20 years in euthanasia fight

  • September 20, 2018

It would seem the war over euthanasia is over, but the fight is not ending for Alex Schadenberg.

Twenty years after launching the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, his will to battle is still strong, even when the highest court in the land strikes a blow against your cause.

“There has to be a voice and we will continue to be that voice,” says Schadenberg.

So-called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) has been available since June 2017 to those seeking a doctor’s aid in ending their life. Statistics Canada numbers released in June show that more than 3,700 people have taken advantage of what the court has said is their right to die.

The executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada is carrying on, like he has for the past 20 years. The coalition has become a world leader in fighting euthanasia, promoting hospice-palliative care, advocating on issues surrounding the cause and building compassionate care community services as alternatives to euthanasia.

The Catholic Register caught up with Schadenberg in mid-September as he awaited a flight to take his message to Europe. It’s a cause he has embraced since he helped found the coalition in 1998 when the issue was barely on anyone’s radar. 

Sure, the Robert Latimer case was fresh in people’s minds as the Saskatchewan farmer was before the courts charged with killing his severely disabled daughter, Tracy, in what he termed a mercy killing. Latimer would eventually be convicted of second-degree murder.

“We knew at the time with what was going on with the Latimer case, which was in its second trial at that point, and the attitude of Canadians, it was coming our way whether we liked it or not,” said Schadenberg, who with Dr. Barrie deVeber and Jean Echlin launched the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. 

Still, it was not a front-burner issue for Canadians nor their elected officials. Occasionally voices would be raised calling for the right to allow those suffering from terminal illness to be allowed to end their life. But the coalition was secure in knowing it had many allies in the medical field and in the corridors of power who were adamantly against euthanasia.

Then the courts entered the picture. In 2012, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith declared Canada’s laws against physician-assisted suicide were unconstitutional because they discriminated against the physically disabled. The inevitable challenges to the ruling eventually wound their way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where Smith’s ruling was upheld. And today, Canada has joined the Netherlands, Belgium and a few other jurisdictions in allowing the terminally ill the option of choosing an assisted death.

Despite the losses in the legal realm, Schadenberg said he will not give up hope. 

“I think this is absolutely wrong,” he said. “It’s an issue of justice that a culture would think it’s OK for its doctors to kill people. There’s got to be something that’s wrong with that. It doesn’t quite make sense to me that we would entrust that action to a group of people.”

There remains many ways the message can be spread, and while the goal remains to change the law, Schadenberg knows that will be tough. 

“We have our focus on people who are faced with this question now and how you help them and protect them,” said Schadenberg. Many people are facing tough times “and this issue is dangling before them.”

There are also concerns around conscience issues to be fought, as the College of Physicians and Surgeons Ontario is forcing objecting doctors to refer patients for assisted suicide. That is currently under appeal. And the language of the legislation is of concern as there is a movement to open assisted suicide to more people. 

Over the years, the coalition has produced a number of books and films to highlight the cause, as well as a monthly newsletter. Schadenberg has crisscrossed Canada and beyond to make the case against euthanasia, helping start groups in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and Europe. The coalition also hosts an annual conference, taking place in Winnipeg this year Oct. 27. 

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