Quebec’s angels of mercy

  • February 27, 2013

The battle over legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in Quebec just shifted to the side of the angels. On Feb. 19, a group of more than 300 courageous and very determined doctors took out attention-grabbing newspaper advertisements declaring bluntly that their role will never be to “kill” their patients. Calling themselves the Physicians’ Alliance for Total Refusal of Euthanasia, they issued a manifesto rejecting the whole ideology under which doctors would be complicit in administering lethal doses of drugs to patients.

The alliance doctors then held a news conference in Montreal to amplify their message of unwavering opposition to government plans that would see euthanasia and assisted suicide — cynically marketed as “medical aid in dying” — become state-approved medical care in Quebec as early as June.

The news conference drew a sizeable media crowd, and the doctors got strong, effective coverage for their message, at least within Quebec. There were a few predictable snide questions about where they raised the money to pay for the advertising, which in this province is code for baseless innuendo that the whole effort might be somehow “tainted” by backing from the Church. Regardless of that sniping, it was a well-done and welcome strike back at the relentless propaganda campaign waged by ideologues that want doctors to be transformed from agents of caring to agents of administered death.

Curiously, and alarmingly, the powerful stand of the Physicians’ Alliance seemed to get very little attention outside Quebec. I did not see a word in the Canadian media I follow, though there was abundant coverage of a goofy dispute between the owner of a Montreal Italian restaurant and an over-zealous language inspector who ordered the eatery to take the word “pasta” off its menu because it is not French.

The stand taken by these doctors, however, was genuinely newsworthy by any standard. Why? Because it confronted the serious intention of a government to transform our health system from the practise of medicine to the acceptance of murder.

When more than 300 doctors, including former deans of the medical schools at Laval, Université de Montréal and McGill, sign off on a manifesto refusing to accept government plans to have them “kill” patients, that is both new and noteworthy. When they publicly ring alarm bells and take a defiant political, albeit prudently non-partisan, stand against those plans, it is worth paying attention.

With some notable exceptions, of course, doctors are not natural public actors. Their profession, their vocation, requires a daily series of encounters that are, by nature, private, personal, confidential. For them to step into the spotlight with such gusto is itself a sign that something worth attending to is happening. These are serious people, with a profoundly serious message: wake up to the dangerous change going on around you.

As Dr. Mark Basik, a founding member of the Physicians’ Alliance, wrote in an op-ed in La Presse, one of the greatest dangers is the threat legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide poses to the existence and expansion of palliative care.

“Palliative care represents one of the most humane advancements in modern medicine,” Basik wrote. “It is an effort to embrace the whole of human life, including the moments of the end of life.

“The contradiction between palliative care and euthanasia can be summarized in a simple question: is the end of life a moment that has inherent value or not. Palliative care says: Yes. Euthanasia says: No.”

For Dr. Catherine Ferrier, one of the driving forces behind the formation of the Physicians’ Alliance, the danger lies at the heart of what we mean by taking human life. When the Quebec government introduces legislation to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide — under whatever euphemism is used — it will also be introducing a dark confusion into what constitutes care and what qualifies as killing.

“If euthanasia isn’t killing, what is it?” she asks.

It’s a question that is at long last beginning to resonate in Quebec. Whether it will be enough to turn the tide in the angels’ favour remains to be seen. All Canadians should be watching.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)


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