Assisted suicide bill on the horizon

  • March 20, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - Work is underway on a draft assisted-suicide and euthanasia bill and on a new test case to challenge the Sue Rodriguez Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

News of the draft legislation and possible test case came out on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup March 2, during an interview with Jocelyn Downie, the Canada research chair in health law and policy at Dalhousie University.

In a telephone conversation March 6, Downie confirmed legislation is in the works, but she declined to give any details. She also would not confirm whether a potential test case has been found or a search for such a person is still going on.

Cross Country Checkup devoted the March 2 program to the recent decision to release Robert Latimer on day parole. Latimer had been serving a 10-year sentence for the second-degree murder of his disabled daughter Tracey. Last fall, a parole board hearing turned down his request for release, because he was unrepentant for the killing. He appealed and won. He will live in Ottawa, where he plans to lobby for clemency and for a change in the law.

For Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, one of the big dangers in the looming euthanasia debate is how mixed up and confused the arguments and the cases in question become. This confusion can be “very favourable to the pro-euthanasia side,” she said.

The Latimer case is not a euthanasia case, she stressed. Initially, the pro-euthanasia people recoiled in horror at the Latimer case, she said, because it was viewed as a father killing his disabled daughter. They said we would never condone anything like that, but only the assisted suicide of a competent adult with informed consent, she said.

“We know that familiarity inhibits our moral intuition, and so now it seems as though they are quite happy to say we should be nice to Mr. Latimer because it was just mercy and compassion,” Somerville said. “Obviously what they’re saying is that’s an ethical justification for what he did and it should be a legal justification.”

Somerville finds euthanasia “alarming no matter how broad or how narrow” the definition is.

Somerville warned of this confusion when she spoke at the Canada Networking Conference put together by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy in Ottawa Feb. 29 in a talk entitled: “The next contentious ethical issue: Euthanasia and end-of-life issues.”

The danger of the Latimer case is that it shows how the very narrow definition of euthanasia could be expanded to include compassion as an ethical and legal justification for killing somebody, she said.

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Schadenberg said he expects a new euthanasia and assisted suicide bill to be introduced after the next election. The last such bill was put forward as a private member’s bill by Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde.

He also expects Latimer will be plying the halls of Parliament Hill, trying to win people over to his point of view. But Schadenberg thinks that Latimer will be as effective as Jack Kevorkian, the so-called suicide doctor, when members of Parliament get to meet him and get a real sense for motivation.

Maclean’s magazine’s March 6 issue profiles Robert Latimer and reports on the underlying rage in his letters to politicians.

“His false idea of mercy seems to have bought him an early release,” said Schadenberg. “Normally he wouldn’t qualify. He doesn’t have remorse; he doesn’t see he didn’t any wrong.

“His idea is a direct threat to other people,” he said, because others might say to themselves if it was OK for Latimer to kill his disabled daughter, maybe there is nothing wrong with my killing a disabled person.

Somerville believes that somehow Canadians need to be shocked back into seeing the larger moral context and what it means for the moral context if we legalize it. Though she usually opposes linking abortion to euthanasia, she thinks the normalization of abortion provides a useful comparison. A third of all pregnancies overall end up in abortion. One in four women in Canada have had an abortion, she pointed out.

“What if one in four people in Canada ended up being euthanized,” she asked. “What would that mean as a society?”

In order to maintain respect for human life, we have to exercise respect for human dignity in general in the form of a restraint when it comes to taking human life, she said.

Another case that has helped confuse the euthanasia debate concerns Samuel Golobchuk, an elderly man on respirator in a Manitoba hospital. His doctors want to remove the respirator and stop treatment. His Orthodox Jewish family wants treatment to continue. They recently won a court injunction. The issue in the Golubchuk case is who should decide. Doctors in Manitoba recently declared they should make the final decision, not families.

Somerville does not believe doctors should have the absolute right to trump the rights of families.

“The family has got the basic right to decide, but there can be exceptions when what they want is patently unreasonable,” she said.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition also supports the Golubchuk family in its battle.

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