SASKATOON — The issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide was the topic of discussion for parish representatives and ministry leaders at an annual Congress Day in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
The day included an examination of who would be endangered if euthanasia and assisted suicide is legalized, the failure of safeguards in jurisdictions where such killing is already legalized, and the need to focus on true compassion by expanding and developing palliative care.
Facilitator for the day was Mary Deutscher, a member of the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission, who has a bachelor of science and a BA in philosophy from the University of Saskatchewan, and an MA in ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa, and is presently a PhD candidate in public policy at the University of Saskatchewan. She has also served as a Roman Catholic chaplain at Pasqua Hospital in the Archdiocese of Regina and held a term position with the Catholic Organization for Life and Family.
Deutscher’s presentation at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon included reflections on her own experiences accompanying those who are dying and as a volunteer for a suicide prevention hotline.
Introducing the topic of euthanasia and assisted suicide, she provided clear definitions and reviewed the history of euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada and elsewhere. Deutscher then set out to equip local faith leaders with arguments against the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, stressing the importance of speaking to the issue in a way that will resonate with broader society, and not simply with people of faith.
“If Canada legalizes euthanasia and assisted suicide, there will be many vulnerable members of our community who will be put at risk,” she stressed, including those suffering from depression and mental illness, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.
While those promoting euthanasia and assisted suicide maintain that safeguards will protect vulnerable people, the experience in jurisdictions where these practices have been legalized shows that safeguards do not work, Deutscher said.
Deutscher began by addressing common misconceptions about euthanasia and assisted suicide. She provided definitions, explaining that euthanasia is the deliberate killing of someone, with or without that person’s consent, in order to eliminate suffering. The individual who commits euthanasia intends to kill the person and causes the death, for example by lethal injection. Assisted suicide involves a third party providing the means for a person to kill himself or herself, by providing information, lethal substances such as pills, or other weapon.
Deutscher emphasized that euthanasia does not include respecting a person’s refusal of treatment or request to discontinue treatment; nor does it involve letting someone die naturally by withholding or withdrawing medical treatment when its burdens outweigh its benefits; or the administration of drugs appropriate for the relief of pain and suffering, even if the unintended effect might be the shortening of life.
When it comes to arguing against euthanasia and assisted suicide, Deutscher urged her listeners not to play the “euphemism game” but to speak clearly about the reality of these practices.
“Don’t call it dying with dignity, because it is not a dignified death to have somebody murder you,” she said.
Both euthanasia and assisted suicide are currently illegal in Canada, but there are court cases, pending legislation and ongoing lobbying efforts to legalize these practices. Deutscher provided an historical overview of the issue in Canada, beginning with the Sue Rodriguez Supreme Court case in 1993, which ruled against assisted suicide; the killing of 12-year-old Tracy Latimer by her father; and various legislative efforts, including private members’ bills attempting to legalize euthanasia. Deutscher also described the current Carter case which is before the Supreme Court of Canada arguing for a legal right to assisted suicide, and the Quebec legislation known as Bill 52, which is an attempt to make euthanasia part of health care, a provincial responsibility.
Deutscher also reviewed how the practice of euthanasia and assisted suicide has evolved and expanded in jurisdictions where they have been legalized. For instance, in the Netherlands, euthanasia was originally only for terminally ill patients, but quickly moved to include those who were suffering from depression.
Death is not an isolated event, Deutscher stressed, hearkening back to her experience as a volunteer at a suicide prevention centre. “Anyone who has been touched by suicide knows how the effect of suicide ripples through a community,” she noted. She described how volunteers at the call centre were trying to do everything in their power to stop a person from committing suicide. “We needed to let that person know that they were valuable and that suicide was not something they should do. How would the work being done in these distress centres be affected if suicide becomes an acceptable option?”
She added that assisted suicide and euthanasia do not exist in a vacuum. “When someone is being killed, that means that someone is doing the killing and the assisting.” The impact on a person who is responsible for ending someone else’s life is not often considered in the public discourse about these issues, Deutscher pointed out. “How will this affect our doctors, our healers, if they are asked to become killers?”
Elder abuse and neglect is already a problem in society, Deutscher noted, and that abuse could be extended to include pressure to request euthanasia or assisted suicide if those practices are legalized. For seniors who already fear that they are a burden, or who feel they have nothing left to live for, euthanasia and assisted suicide would be up for consideration.
The legalization of assisted suicide would create a danger that people with disabilities will not be given the same suicide-prevention options and support that able-bodied persons receive, “but instead we will just kill them,” Deutscher said.
As the euthanasia and assisted suicide debates continues, there are already increasing suggestions that legalization of these practices will be a way to solve health care problems, and provide needed cost-cutting; that there would be an economic pressure to offer death to patients is certainly a possibility, she said.
Deutscher also led a discussion about the importance of good palliative care, encouraging participants to reflect on their own experiences with those who are ill or dying, the idea of a good death, and how to ensure every Canadian has access to palliative care.
“It’s not enough for us to say you can’t have access to euthanasia,” she said. “We want to give people a better option. We want to look at ways that we can actually help people so that these requests for suicide and euthanasia disappear.”