In general, I would not choose to spotlight the ideas of people who seem unable to see much beyond the tips of their own noses, but one of the most telling features of the public ‘conversation’ about assisted dying, and mercy at the end of life, is the inability of some of people to deal with complex ideas. Call it the ‘black and white’ syndrome. Everything is either black or white for them; there are no shades of grey, no nuances, no tragic dilemmas or uncertainties, no moral ambiguity, no room, therefore, for compassion for individuals caught in inescapable moral conflict.
Strangely, these people are very often Christians, even though Jesus, in the story of the woman caught in adultery, is said to have asked the ferocious onlookers to consider their own lives before they condemned her. (Most biblical scholars agree that this story is a later addition to the Jesus myth, but let’s imagine that it is a true account of things.) Had they never done wrong themselves, knowing it to be wrong? Had they never been in a situation where the options were unclear, where whatever they did seemed wrong, yet where the choice was forced? Let that man throw the first stone.
In an article commenting on Robert Latimer’s having been granted full parole, Paul Tuns rails against the decision to let Latimer go home at last. He was not surprised at the decision, he tells us, sarcastically. It just ticks him off. And then this:
It sends a terrible signal to society that the life of a person with a disability is less valuable than the life of an able-bodied person. That is sick and perverse and dehumanizing.
Recall that this is a man whom all the judges who tried him called decent, honest, a salt of the earth sort of man, a man who clearly loved his disabled daughter Tracy. Recall too that Tracy — despite the mischaracterisation of her as a happy child, going to school like other children — was severely disabled and in pain, and that her father only took the course he did, out of desperation, when it seemed to him that Tracy’s suffering was going to get worse and there seemed little chance that the child’s quality of life would ever improve. And all that Paul Tuns can say is that, “For me, more than anything else, this case is about betrayal.” Just that simple. No one who loves another person, it seems, could think that death could be a mercy for that person. Has Paul Tuns never stood at the side of a loved one’s bed as they lay dying, and, after the terrible struggle was over, said that it was a blessing, and that no one would wish them back to suffer so?
The contemptible Alex Schadenburg, of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, whose apparent goal in life is to intrude himself unbidden into the lives of others, a man who can still work himself up into a pitch of indignation over the decision to let the brain-dead Terry Schaivo die, claims that
Robert Latimer has been convicted twice and found unanimously guilty of second degree murder by all 24 jurors. All Rober[t] Latimer needed was 1 sympathetic juror to have been acquitted of murder.
This is sheer misrepresentation. Schadenburg must know that in practically every case the jurors were sympathetic to his plight, and found him guilty with great reluctance. Even the Supreme Court was sympathetic, but felt bound to condemn the act if not the man. The jury in the retrial which began on 27 October 1997, as Bauslaugh says in his book, “clearly had enormous sympathy for Latimer.” (55) There is even reason to believe that the judge misled them as to the jury’s right to recommend leniency in sentencing.
According to Bauslaugh, when the mandatory 10 year sentence was handed down, some jurors were upset:
A number of them put their hands to their mouths in dismay, some gasped, a couple of them cried. It is entirely possible that, had they known about the ten-year minimum, they might have returned a verdict of not guilty. (57)
It is the malice of small minds that retells the story in such a way as to turn Robert Latimer into an odious criminal, who murdered his daughter in cold blood for no more reason than his own convenience. Schadenburg, with bullying hyperbole, calls it a “heinous crime,” and claims that Latimer was treated more lightly than he deserved.
In his article fulminating against the decision to grant Robert Latimer full parole, Paul Tuns puts his finger on the real reason why Latimer acted as he did:
Robert Latimer claims that he only wanted to end Tracy’s suffering, although when you listen to his words carefully you understand the suffering he wanted to end was his own. I have no doubt that he was under great pressure and that he had difficulty coping with the stress of caring for a disabled child. [my emphasis]
Tuns didn’t listen carefully enough. Latimer never spoke about his own suffering. But it is true that Latimer was suffering, and he suffered so much because someone he loved was suffering. A few years ago, Tracy would have died in infancy. But now, through modern medical technology, it is possible to keep people alive, and to prolong their suffering, sometimes for years, even though it is not clear why we should do so. It was only when it seemed to Robert and his wife Laura that Tracy’s suffering would go on, seemingly forever, that Robert Latimer did what he felt he had to do.
He might have been wrong, but which one amongst us is willing to say that this was not a man caught in a desperate and tragic dilemma, who acted, as he saw it (and still sees it) for the best? Latimer is even faulted time and again because he shows no remorse. But he believes it was the right thing to do! Yes, he could have put Tracy in a home, but that would not have brought her suffering to an end. In fact, her suffering would have gone on, but now amongst strangers, without the care and the love that her mother and father could provide. And so it was, faced with this cruel dilemma, that Robert Latimer chose to act as he did.
Yes, Latimer was suffering, but he suffered because Tracy was suffering, and it looked as though her suffering would continue, and that she would be taken into even darker rooms than she had been in before. The failure by people like Schadenburg and Tuns to understand the depth of Robert Latimer’s human compassion, his courage and resolution even in the midst of all that suffering, is truly frightening. It shows how much damage religious absolutism can do, and how cruel and malicious it makes the narrowed minds of its devotees.