Murder is not compassionate

By  Alex Schadenberg, Catholic Register Special
  • November 3, 2006

Is Canada facing legalization of euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide by stealth? Recent court decisions and strategies used by euthanasia lobbyists suggest this is happening even though the law as it is written still bans both types of killing.

On Oct. 19, Montreal Judge Danielle Côté sentenced Andre Bergeron to three years probation for attempting to murder his wife, Marielle Houle. Bergeron had tried to suffocate his wife with a plastic bag by placing it over her head and binding it tightly around her neck. Bergeron was charged in July 2005 with attempted murder but pleaded guilty to aggravated assault.

Houle had an incurable degenerative disease known as Friedreich's Ataxia, which left her significantly disabled and in need of continuing care.

What was most concerning to the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition were the comments by Côté in relation to her sentencing.

According to the CBC, Côté said "that it was clear that Bergeron did what he did out of love and not aggression, and given the circumstances, he should not serve any prison time." After rendering her judgment, Côté said "the country's assisted suicide laws have to be revisited."

We responded to the decision by stating: "If attempting to murder someone with a disability is seen as an act of compassion then all lives of vulnerable Canadians are at risk."

Jean Couture, Bergeron's lawyer, said he would be sending a copy of the judgment to Ottawa to ask Prime Minister Stephen Harper to look at the assisted suicide law.

In January 2006, a similar sentence was given to Marielle Houle (no relation to the above-mentioned Marielle Houle) for assisting the suicide of her son Charles Fariala. Fariala was in the early stages of MS and deeply depressed. His mother, Houle, suffocated him with a plastic bag after he intentionally overdosed himself with sleeping pills and barbiturates.

Houle was given three years' probation, though the light sentence was not to be viewed as a model for other cases, stated Quebec Superior Court Justice Maurice Laramée. Rather, it was a compassionate ruling in light of Houle's physical, psychological and emotional frailty. "Ms. Houle's actions remain very reprehensible and unlawful," he stated.

Also on Oct. 19, a British case was decided by Judge Brian Barker, the common Sergeant of London who gave a nine-month suspended jail sentence for the euthanasia death of Gillian March by her husband David.

David March found his wife Gillian in the process of attempting suicide with a plastic bag. He tied the bag around her head tightly, ensuring that she would suffocate.

Judge Barker said that his light sentence was based on "exceptional circumstances."

In September 2006, I attended the World Federation of Right to Die Societies international conference in Toronto. One of the topics at that conference was titled Nudging the Law. One of the workshop presenters was Jocelyn Downie, a professor of law and medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Downie, a proponent of euthanasia and assisted suicide, believes that the law will eventually change but in the meantime she is working to change its application so the law will become null and void.

Downie explained how the guidelines that prosecutors follow in Canada could be changed. She said that if prosecutors were convinced not to lay charges then the law becomes ineffective. Recently a case in Alberta resulted in prosecutors deciding not to lay charges. Downie makes the case that criminal charges in cases of assisted suicide will rarely, if ever, result in a conviction. Therefore, she surmises that prosecutors can be convinced not to lay charges at all.

Downie also urged the use of jury nullification in Canada. If a jury refuses to convict because they think the law is wrong, then the person is found not guilty. This works even when the evidence for conviction is overwhelming. Downie believes that an education campaign along the lines of jury nullification would be effective for their cause.

Downie believes that the law can be challenged in the courts based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

There seems to be a general trend toward the acceptance of Downie's strategy. Her position has been strengthened by the fact that when charges are laid for assisted suicide or euthanasia, those convicted rarely receive proportionate punishment for their actions.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is primarily concerned for the lives of vulnerable Canadians. Laws prohibiting assisted suicide and homicide are designed particularly to protect vulnerable people. People with disabilities, the elderly and the chronically ill, whose lives are already devalued by attitudes that are ingrained within Canadian culture, are directly threatened by permissive laws relating to assisted suicide and euthanasia.

It is not in the best interest of the general public for judges to treat assisted suicide laws in a lax manner. At the same time we recognize that these acts are often connected to very difficult circumstances. We believe that the courts must strike a balance between mercy and justice without demeaning the purpose of the law, which is to protect the vulnerable. We need meaningful sentences that are balanced by mercy.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition views these lenient sentences by judges as a form of judicial activism, whereby the judge recognizes that if the law is unenforced then the law will be considered null and void.

We need to express our concerns to members of Parliament by stating that we want our laws concerning assisted suicide and euthanasia not only maintained but enforced.

We also recognize that many people are suffering due to their medical condition, but also due to the lack of emotional, psychological and spiritual support that exists in our society for people who suffer terminal or chronic degenerative conditions.

The human person will naturally feel emotionally vulnerable and often depressed when they are in constant need of care that is not readily received or if they are abandoned by family members or friends based on the necessary demands that care puts on the lives of caregivers.

We need to reassess our own personal commitments and recognize that many people could use our personal help and support. We need to offer ourselves as hospice/palliative care volunteers or simply volunteer by visiting those who are experiencing difficulty or need a caring listener or supportive friend.

We can change our culture by becoming witnesses of hope in a culture that lacks hope. It is not enough to oppose the evil in our society; we must offer an alternative of care.

(Schadenberg is executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.)

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