I took a class last year in which we looked at the way people vote. One theory explored the way people react to the seemingly infinite amount of information that is thrown at them during an election. Instead of sifting through all the information, most voters latch onto ideologies and vote for a package of ideas rather than just one issue at a time.
This can be quite useful in general because no one wants to spend all their time looking at election platforms. Unfortunately, however, it has also led many people to make knee-jerk decisions regarding some incredibly important social issues.
For example, over the past couple years I have been dismayed to watch as the issues of prostitution and human trafficking moved from being something that most people would discuss openly, to becoming a polarized conversation stopper. Participation in prostitution became a right, and only people who had a problem with sex would try to criminalize its purchase. Canada’s adoption of the Nordic model, which would criminalize the purchase of sex but decriminalize its sale, was seen as a backwards move. The victims of human trafficking disappeared from the discussion.
This same pattern is present in the euthanasia and assisted suicide debate, as many have embraced these issues as a progressive ideal. Meanwhile those of us who approach this issue out of concern for our elders and those with a disability or mental illness have suddenly found ourselves labelled as out of touch.
It’s not the fact that these issues have entered the political realm that bothers me; they absolutely need to be discussed at all levels of politics. What bothers me is that we have skipped over having a national discussion, and have instead jumped to labelling. When national polls are taken, sometimes I feel participants might as well be asked: “Are you a progressive who supports prostitution/euthanasia/freedom, or an old fuddy-duddy?”
Popular culture’s tendency to dismiss anyone who does not support “progressive” ideology is becoming even more problematic as we try to address the policy challenges presented by the legalization of euthanasia. The Carter decision took the reckless step of opening the door to euthanasia, and there are many issues that remain to be resolved: Will people who struggle with depression be able to access euthanasia? Will doctors be compelled to participate in it? Will publicly funded faith-based hospitals and long-term care homes be able to decline providing it?
In an attempt to address these questions, two public consultations have been opened, one by the government of Canada and the other by the government of Ontario. To the untrained eye, this may simply seem redundant. But if you look a little closer, you will notice that the national consultation’s panel consists of three people who have previously stated their opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide, while the Ontario group seems to draw heavily on euthanasia advocates.
The options each consultation will present to our political leaders seem predictable. The real question is: which group will our leaders listen to? In a political climate that does not seem to understand what compromise means, will our leaders be pressured into embracing euthanasia as a progressive treatment that should be widely available to all Canadians? Or will they acknowledge the dangers of euthanasia and adopt policies that favour protecting vulnerable members of our society?
Rather than admitting that the legalization of euthanasia presents real dangers to some Canadians and working together to mitigate those dangers, in the coming months we may instead find ourselves in a shouting match over whether or not the dangers exist in the first place. This pattern is repeating throughout our political system as ideologies become more entrenched on all sides.
Our focus on progressive/regressive labelling makes it difficult for us to have a balanced discussion on the policies that will shape our social landscape because it focuses our attention on which ideology will win instead of on trying to balance the interests of different groups of Canadians. It is my sincere hope that our leaders, whoever they will be after the election, will look beyond ideology to find a way to protect the interests of vulnerable people. The alternative is to silence a set of voices that are already barely above a whisper.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.