Assisted suicide hearings criss-cross Quebec

  • February 9, 2011
GATINEAU, Que. - As Quebec marked Suicide Prevention Week Jan. 30-Feb. 5, the province’s Select Committee on Dying with Dignity held hearings here testing support for legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The irony did not escape Linda Couture, who directs Living With Dignity, a grassroots, non-religious organization that has been monitoring the hearings as the committee travels across Quebec.

The committee made up of members of Quebec’s National Assembly (MNAs) has been holding public hearings in cities across Quebec since September. Couture has attended most of them. The committee wraps up its hearings at the end of February and will then work on a written report.

On Jan. 30, Couture received a copy of a press release from Marguerite Blais, the Quebec minister responsible for seniors, who kicked off Suicide Prevention Week by expressing alarm over the high rates of suicide among the elderly and criticizing the belief that suicide is a normal response to growing older. Couture said Blais has made as eloquent a plea as any she has heard that suicide is never a normal or acceptable response to age or illness.

“How could a medicalized suicide be acceptable?” Couture asked. “There’s something missing. I don’t get it.”

Ottawa Hospital palliative care chief Dr. Jose Pereira told the committee legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide “places people at risk.” He cited Oregon, where one in six people who received assisted suicide were found to have untreated depression.

“My brother-in-law committed suicide last year, and it was a very difficult time for our family,” he said. “And looking back, we feel it was a depression that wasn’t treated.”

Pereira, who has worked in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is allowed, said he observed the rules change over time. At first assisted suicide was only supposed to apply to those who were terminally ill, at the end of life and suffering. Yet within two years, there was a campaign to allow assisted suicide for those “in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, for people who were elderly and felt that they didn’t want to live any more.”

Joan Lusignan, who is in her eighties, told the committee its work has her worried.

“What will our children and future generations think of a government that on one hand spends large sums of our money and effort to help prevent the escalating rate of suicides among young people in Quebec, but at the same time allows other people to help them commit suicide? The problem of suicide doesn’t just affect one person, it haunts the whole family for generations,” she said.

Couture is worried by how political the process has become. She noted how the MNAs tend to zero in on the five or six hard cases of individuals whose stories seem to recur over and over at the hearings.

“They really get stuck on the individual stories, the exceptions,” Couture said. “We don’t build a law on exceptions like that. We can’t afford to do that.”

Most of the MNAs’ questions, especially for those who identified themselves as religious, raised the hard cases of those suffering from terminal illness who clearly want death. They asked why these people think they can impose their religious views on others who disagree.

Couture said that line of questioning is typical.

There have been 300 or so testimonies presented to the committee so far. About 80 per cent have been made by individuals. The rest have been made on behalf of groups. Couture estimates they have been about two to one against legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide, though reports have said the presentations are about 50/50.

The committee has also said it is not numbers it is interested in so much as the “quality” or the emotional appeal of the presentation, especially from individual citizens, Couture said. Yet emotionally touching stories of those who pitched in as a family to take care of dying parents and spouses “don’t seem to touch them,” she said.

The process has been set up to test the tolerance level for assisted suicide in those exceptional cases, said Couture, but she warned the province better “think twice” about introducing a new bureaucracy that might require two doctors signing off to kill patients when “one million people like me don’t have a family doctor.”

The province did not expect the level of response, she said. If politicians go ahead and “smuggle” in euthanasia and assisted suicide under a euphemism like “medical aid in dying” she believes Quebeckers will find it unacceptable and rise up.

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