Protestors and media gather following the B.C. Supreme Court decision June 15 to strike down Criminal Code provisions against euthanasia and assisted suicide. Photo by Nathan Rumohr

Could it actually be that the media is on the side of life?

  • July 10, 2012

The parallels between abortion and euthanasia or assisted suicide are often cited during debates, especially by those who recall the role played by the media and the courts in first liberalizing Canada’s abortion laws and later eliminating them.  But over the past few weeks we have seen a striking difference emerge. 

Decades ago, almost all media outlets supported liberalization of abortion laws. In recent weeks, however, media reaction to a B.C. court decision striking down Canada’s assisted suicide laws has  been anything but unanimous. Even editorials supportive of the decision have acknowledged the vulnerability of the elderly and disabled, and pointed out the potential for abuse through a more liberal law.

Opposing the court decision, the Vancouver Province said, “Allowing doctors to kill patients nearing the end of their lives, even with their consent, cheapens the sanctity of life, no matter how horrible the disease a patient is suffering from.”

Noting that the real issue for the majority of Canadians is good care with freedom from pain at the end of life, the Calgary Herald noted: “That’s what good palliative care is about: pain management and symptom control, so that there isn’t this extreme, inhumane suffering at the end, so rightly feared by (plaintiff Gloria) Taylor and others. There are effective drugs today that work well in managing end-of-life pain, even in extreme cases.”

Several other newspapers expressed concern at the B.C. court over-riding several clear votes of Parliament against euthanasia and assisted suicide, as well as the precedent set in the  1992 Sue Rodrigues decision, pointing out that any change should be the prerogative of Parliament and follow extensive national debate and consultation.

A good deal of that discussion has already occurred, notably through the Parliamentary Committee on Compassionate and Palliative Care, which in 2011 strongly urged improvements to palliative care and a commitment to a national suicide prevention strategy. Bill C-300, which aims to coordinate and support the efforts of suicide prevention agencies across Canada, reached the Senate just a short time before the Taylor decision. It’s ironic that while Parliament has identified suicide as a tragedy to be prevented, a B.C. court decision implies that suicide is a constitutional right.

The Herald elaborated on that aspect of the B.C. decision. The judge stated that because suicide itself is not illegal, disabled people who require assistance to kill themselves must have the same right as the able-bodied who can act alone. However, just because something is not illegal does not mean lawmakers or society in general consider it a good thing. It could simply be an acknowledgement that some actions are impossible to regulate but should still be prevented as much as possible. 

Many Canadians believe they need the right to end their lives prematurely, and some media outlets  reflect that view. While the Toronto Star editorialized that Parliament “should affirm the right to assisted suicide but enact strict limits to ensure against abuse,” it emphasized that the courts should not have the final say. “Rather than punt the problem to the courts, Parliament should muster the courage to face it head on, and decide under what circumstances a competent person with a grave illness should be allowed help to commit suicide.”

The Globe and Mail was also supportive of liberalization but acknowledged slippery slope concerns. “Assisted suicide is an option of last resort and must be framed as narrowly as possible. Ottawa, which now has a year to draft new legislation, can look to other jurisdictions for guidance. The Dutch law, for example, offers a six-part test that must be met for a physician-assisted suicide to be legal; each year many requests are rejected, especially in the case of depression.”

I have been on discussion panels where people who specialize in research into euthanasia and assisted suicide disagree sharply on how and whether such safeguards in other jurisdictions are working, particularly with respect to the issue of patient consent. Similar disagreements emerged during court testimony in the B.C. case. Given that the sanctity of life is absolute, society should be focused on enhancing life through the provision of better care rather than getting sidetracked by conflicting statistics, however valuable they can be in some contexts.

The sanctity of life argument got short shrift when Canada’s abortion laws were eliminated. With euthanasia and assisted suicide, despite several biased and inaccurate media accounts, society generally seems more aware of the moral dilemmas connected to liberalization of the law.  So it’s possible that full and accurate reporting by the media will keep the law on the side of life. Participation in the debate is important in helping that happen.