Vulnerable suffer if euthanasia seen as a virtue

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In my first-ever column on euthanasia, I wrote about Frances and Ken. Fifteen years later, their stories remain far more compelling than my words in showing us what happens to individuals when society promotes life—or death—as a virtue.

The story of Frances appeared in Newsweek. On her 76th birthday, she wrote, “unassisted and by my own free will, I have chosen to take my final passage. I am still in control . . . this act is not one of suicide . . .” She then took an overdose of sleeping pills, tied a plastic bag over her head and committed suicide.

Why? She had no terminal illness. But she idolized Dr. Jack Kevorkian and possessed numerous well-worn publications from the Hemlock Society, as well as a suicide file. She spent the last years of her life focused on death and, according to her friend, “held a schoolgirl’s romanticism about suicide, seeing it as noble and an act of strength.”

When society promotes suicide as a virtue and the ultimate act of autonomy, lonely and vulnerable people like Frances are the first casualties.

Yet, last week it was reported that healthy, elderly people in the Netherlands who are “tired of living” could soon be allowed to end their lives with a lethal injection. In fact, the very helpful Right to Die group has suggested there’s no need for the medical community to be involved in this death project and has proposed that non-medical staff be trained to administer the injection.

In Holland, inhabitants of nursing homes already fear for their lives and the possibility of “involuntary” euthanasia, while the depressed, the terminally ill, the not-so terminally ill and young ballerinas with arthritic toes all pride themselves in their right to voluntarily purchase this eternal one-way ticket.

In December, the health minister who led Holland’s euthanasia bill into law admitted some regrets. Medical care for the terminally ill has declined and she believes it was a mistake to listen first to “the political and societal demand in favour of euthanasia.”

In spite of what we now know about Holland, Bloc MP Francine Lalonde continues to envision this kind of a society for Canada. This week, she once again introduced a private member’s bill to give medical doctors the right to directly and intentionally cause the death of a patient—if the patient “appears to be lucid” and has chronic physical or mental pain (i. e. depression) or is terminally ill. She told Parliament, “We should not refuse them the right to die with dignity.”

A November 2009 Environics poll showed that 61 per cent of Canadians apparently agree with Lalonde. But even though they may support legalized euthanasia, they still have a host of concerns about the consequences. Between 55 to 72 per cent of those who supported euthanasia still worried that a “significant number” of people could be put to death against their wishes (data from Holland broadly supports this concern). In addition, a large majority of those who showed tentative support for euthanasia believe we should place a greater priority on palliative and hospice care than euthanasia. In other words, Canadians are just as concerned with helping people live as helping them die.

That brings us to Ken, a 48-year-old Montreal poet who suffered from a rare, paralyzing form of Parkinson’s disease. As his condition worsened, he repeatedly asked his friend for right-to-die literature and a lethal supply of sleeping pills. Then, one day, instead of saying “help me die,” Ken began to ask his friend to “help me live.”

According to Ken, “Life is beautiful and I haven’t lost my appetite for life. I have proved the doctors wrong about my capacity to live, despite the disease, for years and years. But if I do not get help, I cannot continue to survive.”

Ken then became a well-known advocate for home care in Quebec. Instead of using his final years to contemplate suicide, he used them to make life better for those with terminal illness.

There will be increasing pressure to legalize euthanasia as our population ages and a generation that has led a life of convenience comes to terms with death. Society must now choose. Will we focus on better palliative care or euthanasia? Will our nation promote life or death? Will Canadians help people live or help them die?

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