Barbara Kay: Be careful about calling it ‘death with dignity’
National Post - Wednesday January 23rd, 2013
I have always found it odd that the same people who feel the death penalty is barbaric often look benignly on euthanasia. And it does show that words matter. One person’s stark “state killing” is to another, as in Quebec’s pitch to legalize euthanasia, “dying with dignity.” But the final result is still a human being’s life purposefully ended by his fellow human being.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide raise existential moral questions. (Euthanasia is the killing of a patient, for humanitarian reasons, by another person. In cases of assisted suicide, another person provides the patient with the means to kill himself, but does not perform the final lethal act himself.) Yet I find pundits’ discussion around the issue in Canada’s mostly sympathetic mainstream media (including the National Post editorial board) to spring more from vicarious terror of a bad death than critical investigation into assisted suicide/euthanasia as public policy.
Now taken for granted are: the “right” to state-assisted suicide; “dignity” narrowly understood as physical autonomy; “intolerable suffering,” the individual’s to define, the state’s agency in ending to command. None of these assumptions seem self-evident to me.
Also taken for granted: that it is the task of the physician — sworn to heal, relieve suffering and comfort the afflicted — to assist in ending lives. But why doctors, who are passionately divided on the subject? Why not death technicians or even, as one critic sarcastically mused in an October Wall Street Journal op-ed, the police (with a strategically placed loaded gun and instructions on how best to deploy it)?
In fact, most physicians are at odds with public opinion. A 2009 survey in Britain found that while over 80% of the public approved euthanasia, 73% of the members of the British Royal College of Physicians opposed it. In hearings for Quebec’s “Dying with Dignity” Commission, most intervenors rejected euthanasia.
In their report, Quebec’s commissioners boasted of satisfactory fact-finding missions to three European countries where euthanasia is legal. But they did not reveal that euthanization without consent is a growing concern in Belgium; or that in 2009, a UN committee on human rights singled out the Netherlands for its disturbing rates of euthanasia (4,050 in 2010; euthanasia and assisted-suicide rates have jumped 73% in just eight years). Euthanasia opponents also argue that some seniors in euthanasia-legal countries are moving in significant numbers to neighboring non-euthanasia-legal countries, because they fear being pressured to relieve the state or families of the perceived burden they now apparently represent. The reality is that the Quebec commissioners had already made up their minds; they then cherrypicked their data to suit their convictions.
Hard cases make bad law. Take, for example, the case of the 45-year old identical twin men who were put to death last month in Belgium. The deaf twins were inseparable companions. Upon finding out that they were going blind as well, they concluded that life without the ability to see each other was intolerable. The state concurred.
Such a case has strong emotional appeal to ordinary people who can identify with the mingled physical and psychological trauma the brothers were enduring. But consider an equally plausible hypothetical case of inseparable twin deaf brothers. One of them is struck by lightning and dies. The surviving twin, bereft but otherwise healthy, also feels life without ever “seeing” his brother again is intolerable. Will the state concur and agree to euthanize him? Would you? Since I am not a “progressive,” I would not, but I suspect Belgium would.
Quebec patients already have the right to refuse treatment, withdraw treatment, withhold treatment and request medical assistance in dying. The new law would add one element: active euthanasia, which will effectively suppress interest in enhancing palliative care. There is no dignity in this law. It should be euthanized.