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Community or Autonomy—The Difference between Life and Death

It looks like the battle for public opinion may already be upon us.

Euthanasia, assisted suicide proponents and "The Right to Die."

Recently, Eric MacDonald, a retired Anglican priest helped his wife, Elizabeth, travel to an assisted-suicide centre in Switzerland. There she consumed barbiturates provided to her by Dignitas, a clinic that advocates for assisted suicide. Shortly thereafter, she died. Since its opening in 1998, Dignitas has aided in approximately 700 deaths of people who have come to their clinic.

Caring for the vulnerable is the mark of a just society.

Dignitas has received further exposure from the CBC's, The Hour. The show's host, George Stroumboulopoulos recently interviewed John Zaritsky regarding his latest documentary, The Suicide Tourist where he films the stories and deaths of people who came to Dignitas to die.

In an earlier article (Euthanasia: Pre-empting the Next Battle) I argued that to pre-empt the next battle—the call for euthanasia—the Church will have to be there, in the forefront, caring for the vulnerable and serving as an example of family and community responsibility. Suddenly, however, it looks like the battle for public opinion may already be upon us. Some evidence of this is found in George Stroumboulopoulos' questions to Zaritsky asking, "We have the right to live, why don't we have the right to die?"

"Why don't we have the right to die" comes down to the argument between individual rights or the rights of the community. That difference can be a matter of life and death. Proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide argue that they have a right to die, based on autonomy; it's my life. I can do with it what I want. This however, is a radical departure from the historical view Canadians have for the high regard for life. Caring for the vulnerable is the mark of a just society.

Briefly, let's examine euthanasia and assisted suicide's current status in Canadian Law, the danger to vulnerable Canadians if this legislation is removed, and finally, a call for palliative care as a solution. (There is a more detailed discussion on this topic in the EFC's book, In the Shadow of Death, A Christian Perspective on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.)

The Canadian Charter, the courts and the Criminal Code affirm the sanctity of life.

Section 15 of the Charter protects against discrimination on the basis of mental or physical disability (people who might be pressured into assisted suicide).

Every human life has intrinsic value and inherent dignity. The Supreme Court of Canada, in Rodriguez v. British Columbia, recognized that Canadian society is "based upon respect for the intrinsic value of human life and on the inherent dignity of every human being." Mr. Justice Sopinka in that case referred to the sanctity of life as being one of the three Charter values protected in Section 7 of the Charter.

The Criminal Code treats euthanasia or assisted suicide as homicide. Section 14 of the Criminal Code states, "No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him". Section 241 makes counselling, aiding and abetting in a suicide illegal.

Legalization of euthanasia or assisted suicide places already vulnerable persons at unacceptable risk (the slippery slope argument).

Persons who are disabled, terminally ill or elderly would be at risk because, as Mr. Justice Sopinka stated in Rodriguez v. Canada, assisted suicide is ungovernable. It is not possible to devise safeguards which would adequately protect the vulnerable. This is also true of euthanasia.

Those who are most likely to ask for euthanasia are those who are most vulnerable to pressure from family and the health care system. Given Canada's rapidly aging population and our strained healthcare system, the legal and social acceptance of euthanasia may lead to untenable pressure on individuals who are dying or disabled, to end their lives early.

Once the presumption in favour of life is lowered to allow for early deaths, there will be more deaths than intended in the legislation. Abuse will increase, as is already chronicled in other jurisdictions, such as Holland and Switzerland. In Switzerland, where there is a "fundamental right to suicide," where people can go to "death clinics" such as Dignitas to request assisted suicide, for any reason.

Palliative Care is the Answer.

Euthanasia is not the answer; palliative care is. Medical treatment should never be for the purposes of causing death. It should always be life-affirming. In 1995 and 2000 the Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide made unanimous recommendations for enhancing palliative care.The government has not followed these recommendations.

Palliative care is not readily available across Canada and medical students are not being adequately trained in end-of-life care. The pressure on our governments should not be for relaxed laws on euthanasia and assisted suicide, but for more resources and greater attention to be given to palliative care.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives us the right to life, liberty and security of the person—it doesn't give us the right to die at our own choosing. Opening the door for the few who want euthanasia and assisted suicide creates a greater risk for the rest of us in society.

Douglas Cryer is the director of public policy for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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