CNS photo/David Ryder, Reuters

Death wins out

  • February 19, 2015

In 35 years of journalism, I’ve had two significant encounters with jailhouse views of life and death. Memories of both came back sharply standing in Canada’s Supreme Court earlier this month when nine justices declared doctor-assisted killing legal.

In the late 1990s, I covered the execution in Texas of an Alberta man, Stanley Faulder, who had murdered a woman near Dallas two decades earlier. I got the chance to talk to a cellmate of Faulder’s who had spent many of those years beside him on death row. How, I asked, was it possible for anyone to live for 20 years facing execution?

“Well,” he said, “it beats the hell out of the alternative.”

There was more than grim common sense in the black humour of the answer. There was an expression of fundamental humanity. Even those of us sentenced to death — and, of course, that’s ultimately all of us — want to live. We are driven to live by biology. Much more, we are driven by the spiritual desire to tend the gift we’ve been given if only for one additional moment.

The negation of that desire, within ourselves and also within others, is what C.S. Lewis long ago called the abolition of man. There is a simple test to see how antithetical it is to our nature. The test is this: If you were crossing a bridge and saw a young woman trying to boost herself onto the railing, would you run to get her help or a ladder?

The only person I’ve ever met who I’m sure would opt for the ladder was a man in a prison in British Columbia in the early 1980s. I was doing a series on provincial and federal inmate life when I encountered a fellow who called himself Charlie Boy. Somehow, the topic of jailhouse suicide came up, and he assured me he would have no qualms about “boosting someone up” to put his finger in a light socket if electrocution were the preferred means of suicide.

“I’d do anything to help someone get out of this place,” Charlie Boy said.

Looking into his face, watching his eyes, listening to the tone of his voice, I knew his words weren’t just crowbar hotel braggadocio. I knew he meant it and, in fact, had the queasy suspicion that while he spoke in the conditional tense, it was an already lived experience.

By this time next year, Canadians will be living the affirmation of the Charlie Boy view, or at least whatever modified form of it becomes federal law thanks to the Supreme Court’s Feb. 6 decision on doctor-assisted killing. The court, after all, affirmed the Charlie Boy approach as the rational way to help those who want to “get out of this place” ahead of their appointed time.

Of course, they did so in far more genteel, polysyllabic language. They did so, too, with an eye to a much more sanitized method than a finger in a light socket or a ladder to help a would-be bridge jumper mount the rail. There will be a bureaucratic regime that will prevail at least the next Supreme Court decision on assisted suicide. Assessments will be done, medical counsel given, forms signed off. All will be white lab coat proper, neat and tidy.

Yet the underlying principle will express the Charlie Boy credo: a rational person, seeking to escape the seemingly intolerable, has a right to receive reasonable help in abolishing his or her life. Indeed, such a right has now been declared an integral part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, despite the Rodriguez decision of 1993 that ruled no such Charter right exists. Hey! Presto! Turn the key and a long-locked legal door suddenly stands wide open. The world, in turn, turns upside down.

 “An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy,” the nine Supreme Court justices wrote in their Feb.  6 decision. “This interferes with their ability to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care… It impinges on their security of the person.”

Security of the person once meant limiting the power of the State to take at least innocent life. That’s when it was human nature to want to live. No longer. Now, it’s death that beats the alternative.

I’m sure Charlie Boy would agree. But I wonder what Stanley Faulder’s cellmate on death row in Texas, if still alive, would think.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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