SASKATOON — Prof. Margaret Somerville addressed a full house at St. Paul’s Hospital for the 2014 William F. Mitchell Bioethics Seminar presented Nov. 4 on The Ethics of Physician Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. Somerville is known for her advocacy against euthanasia and guided participants through what she called, “the most important values debate of this era.”
Somerville, who is a professor of law and in the faculty of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, spoke about the death of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who took her own life Nov. 1 in Oregon.
Somerville explained that, while it may seem that assisted suicide or euthanasia only affects an individual such as Maynard, in reality these actions affect all of humanity, because they challenge the value of respect for human life that underpins society.
Somerville posed the question, “How do you not want your great-great-grandchildren to die?” — asking those in attendance to consider what death will look like in future generations if euthanasia and assisted suicide are legalized today.
Somerville also questioned whether or not Maynard felt pressured by the pro-euthanasia group Compassion & Choices to end her life once she had gained international attention. Somerville referred to a study that found that, on average, patients who request euthanasia change their minds every 12 hours.
Somerville cautioned that once a society steps over the line to allow any kind of euthanasia or suicide, there is no going back.
“There is clear evidence of the abuse of euthanasia and its expansion in other jurisdictions,” she said, citing the prevalence of euthanasia for disabled newborns and persons suffering from depression in the Netherlands.
Somerville stated that the legalization of euthanasia would mark a dramatic shift in society, authorizing, “our healers, our care-ers, our life preservers — our physicians — to take life.” She went on to say, “We’ve got to take the white coat off euthanasia” and challenged her listeners to consider how euthanasia would be received by the public if it was placed in the hands of specially trained lawyers instead of doctors.
Despite some dramatically different understandings about what constitutes a good death, Somerville stressed that there is something that all Canadians can agree on: “It is a disgrace that only 16 - 30 per cent of Canadians who require palliative care can access palliative care. Leaving someone in pain is a fundamental breach of rights.”
Somerville stressed that Canadians should be using their energy to improve palliative care. “Kill the pain, not the person with the pain,” she said, pointing out that in Canada veterinarians are given six times more training in pain relief than physicians.
“Is euthanasia the outcome of our failure to be able to love those who are dying?” she asked.
Somerville also drew a clear distinction between euthanasia and the withdrawal of treatment, stressing that while “refusals of treatment respect the right to inviolability, (they do) not recognize a right to die.” When treatment is withdrawn or pain management is given, the intent is not to cause to death, she stressed. On the other hand, in euthanasia, the lethal injection intentionally causes death.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is currently neutral regarding euthanasia, but Somerville encouraged attendees to contact the CMA and urge doctors to reject euthanasia.
Audience members were receptive of Somerville’s message, with one local surgeon speaking adamantly about the need for doctors to completely reject the idea of euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Another audience member shared that her husband was recently diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). She said that the recent push for the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide is already creating pressure “to do the ‘right’ thing” by ending his life. Somerville echoed that vulnerable persons would feel even more pressure to end their lives if euthanasia is legalized.
This year’s William F. Mitchell Bioethics Seminar was sponsored by the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan (CHAS) and St. Thomas More College.