I apologise to the Farewell Foundation for ripping off the whole section on the representations made by Christians at the Carter Trial, but what the Farewell Foundation is doing should be better known, so I hope they will forgive the presumption. I will make a few comments following the plagiarised segment (the links will take you back to the Farewell Foundation):
This Farewell Foundation Report covers the Carter Trial for December 14, 2011
Day 20: Wednesday December 14, 2011 (The Opposing Interveners)
December 14th was reserved for the interveners, the Christian Legal Fellowship and the euthanasia Prevention Coalition.
THE CHRISTIAN LEGAL FELLOWSHIP
Bradley Miller, professor of law at University of Western Ontario, presented the argument on behalf of the CLF. The CLF intervened in the Carter case to argue the legal and moral principle of the inviolability of life found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It says that the prohibition on physician assisted suicide and euthanasia exists to protect the most vulnerable in Canada.
The CLF warned Justice Smith in “exercising the right to make a life and death decision, this Court would do well to not risk … damage … (what) it cannot repair.” The CLF said that the physician oath to do no harm applies equally to judges.
Mr. Miller invoked the “principle of inviolability” which he said is the same concept as the “sanctity of life” to assert that the lives of all people are “intrinsically and equally valuable, and, without exception, the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong.” He said that autonomy arguments of the plaintiffs would require doctors and society at large to endorse the judgement of a patient that his or her life is no longer worth living, has no value and that continued life is a harm. Miller said that accepting such an argument put at risk the lives of people who are not asking for help to die.
The CLF argued that without a prohibition against assisted suicide, the disabled community would be subject to subtle pressures from family, doctors, and society to agree to have physician-assisted suicide. Miller said that prohibition is necessary to support the existing medical and ethical culture against killing. He said the ethic against killing is an internalized ethic supported by the law and that it must not be dismantled. To do so would harm medicine, palliative care, and society.
In the CLF’s concluding statement, Mr. Miller said that the Court should not strike down the law because of the principle of inviolability and because such matters of public policy belong to parliament, not the courts. He said the court simply “does not have the benefit of the wide ranging consultations that are available to government.” With reference to the cases of Sue Rodriguez and Robert Latimer, the CLF said every time it has had to consider assisted suicide and euthanasia, the Supreme Court of Canada has chosen to side with life.
EUTHANASIA PREVENTION COALITION
Hugh Scher presented the argument on behalf of the EPC. The EPC submission said that “(b)y legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, society crosses over that line that maintains human life as inviolable, i.e. of intrinsic worth and value.” To cross that line would make society’s most vulnerable people, seniors, and the disabled, “fair game” to be killed.
Mr. Scher said that any constitutional exemption to allow assisted death would amount to a “lethal form of discrimination.” Safeguards, he said, are not sufficient and people “who participate in these intentional killings are lesser for it and make the community less.”
“Negative messaging,” an issue already identified by Canada was also argued by Mr. Scher. He said that people with disabilities are too often the “victims of experiments in social engineering that undermine their inherent dignity and humanity.” He cited forced sterilization, medical experimentation and eugenics as examples.
Mr. Scher said that suicide is never a rational act, it is a cry for help. Quoting from the 1995 Senate Report “Of Life and Death,” Scher repeated the words of Gary McPherson who spoke on behalf of the Alberta Premier’s Council on the Status of Persons with disabilities:
“Canada has identified a suicide problem among its youth, and we have responded ‘How can we prevent it?’ Canada has identified a suicide problem among Aboriginal peoples and we have responded ‘How can we prevent it?’ Canada has identified a suicide problem among people with disabilities and we have responded ‘How can we assist them to kill themselves?’” (G. McPherson, Sept 30, 1994, oral submission to Senate Committee)
In closing, the EPC asked that the Court dismiss the Carter claim on terms that would enhance equality for Canada’s seniors and people with disabilities and to reduce prejudice and disadvantage and support the intrinsic value of all life.
I want to focus on a couple of arguments made by these Christian believers. I emphasise that, in the case of Bradley Miller, as a representative of the Christian Legal Fellowship, this is an acknowledged point of view. Hugh Scher is less open about the commitments of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. Like many similar Roman Catholic organisations, the EPC does not wear its Christian colours on the mast, but it is devoted to furthering the Christian pro-life agenda, and its conferences, I am told, resemble clergy conferences, there being so many priests and bishops about.
Let me start with Miller’s argument:
[Miller] said that autonomy arguments of the plaintiffs would require doctors and society at large to endorse the judgement of a patient that his or her life is no longer worth living, has no value and that continued life is a harm. Miller said that accepting such an argument put at risk the lives of people who are not asking for help to die.
This is a very common point of view. It is, for example, repeated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his speech to the House of Lords on the Assistance in Dying for the Terminally Ill bill. Pointing out that it is not only religious people who oppose the bill, he says:
… whether or not you believe that God enters into consideration, it remains true that to specify, even in the fairly broad terms of the Bill, conditions under which it would be both reasonable and legal to end your life, is to say that certain kinds of human life are not worth living.
But this is simply a non sequitur. (As to the exact specifics of the bill, it may be strictly correct, but in general this is not the implication of assisted dying legislation.) It simply does not follow from the fact that I agree with you that you have sufficient reason to think your life no longer worth living, that I think anyone in exactly the same circumstances as you should also think his or her life not worth living too. The italicised words, ‘in exactly the same circumstances’, are important here, because agreeing with you that you have a sufficient reason to think going on with your life no longer worthwhile, does not commit me to believing that you must think so — even in the very same circumstances. It might very well have happened that you did not think so, and the question might never have arisen at all. And this is in reference to the very same circumstances in which you do, in fact, believe that you have reason to think your life no longer worth living. And the very same circumstances very seldom obtain, since we are so different from each other, and so little reason to think that everyone would make the same choice, even if situations were closely similar.
The fact that my wife Elizabeth, at a certain stage of her disease, decided that, while she still might have had the possibility of worthwhile life ahead of her, she had sufficient reason to go to Switzerland, so that she should not be caught in a situation where she no longer had the choice to receive help to die. No one else need have felt that at all. That was her free decision. There was an actor, in Montreal, who took his life when his disability was much less severe than Elizabeth’s. Was he wrong to make that decision? And did making that decision say to Elizabeth, or to anyone else similarly placed, that they should have given up on life long before they did? No, of course not. A decision like when life has become unbearable is a very personal one. It is not something that a doctor, for example, is qualified to make. Why should a doctor’s assessment be necessary to making such a personal decision as to what is and what is not a tolerable or a worthwhile life? But that goes for anyone else. No one should get to choose. And when someone makes a choice, they are not making that choice for anyone else.
The mistake that both Bradley Miller and the Archbishop are making lies in the belief that someone else has to say when someone’s life is no longer worth living in order for assisted dying laws to work. This is not true; but this is the error that lies at the heart of so many arguments that so-called “vulnerable” people will be put at risk, by laws which legalise assisted dying. The idea is that someone is in change of making the decision as to when someone’s life has become no longer worth living. Certainly, we may want to put some restrictions on such a right, but this should not depend on the judgement that certain types of life are not worth living, that you must have a certain type of pain, or a certain degree of disability, or some other specific condition, in order to qualify for assisted dying. If this were the case, then there might be risks involved. But this is not the case. The right has to do with the condition of the person, coupled with that person’s conviction that life is no longer worth living in that condition.
In many cases, the person can be convinced that there is meaning and purpose still left in life. Two thirds of requests for assisted suicide are turned down by the major assisted suicide organisations in Switzerland every year. Although the reasons for doing so are not listed, the likely reason is that their decision is not stable, or they have been convinced otherwise, after conversation with consulting physicians that their need is no longer urgent. Harvey Cochinov’s research into dignity and what he calls ”dignity therapy” has shown how this can be done, but it has also shown that for around 10% of those involved this is not possible, even with the best that “dignity therapy” can do, and it is well known at the outset that assisted dying is not available anyway. And of course no one can be forced to undergo dignity therapy, any more than they can be forced to undergo any other sort of treatment. However, most people do not have a settled and unchanging disposition to end their lives, and that would be necessary in order for assisted dying laws to work effectively without endangering people’s lives. No one should be able simply to say, “Okay, it’s time,” and get a pill. But why should anyone think that this is what supporters of assisted dying are demanding?
All the foregoing applies to most of Hugh Scher’s position, and the arguments of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. The constant repetition that the vulnerable will be placed at risk is simply unfounded. Switzerland has had permissive assisted suicide legislation for 70 years, and no one has shown that this places the vulnerable at risk in Switzerland, and this is a right which the Swiss themselves defend fiercely. The Canton of Zurich recently voted overwhelmingly in favour, not only of the law itself, but in favour of allowing non-residents to continue to take advantage of that law. This is very important, and should not be missed. In the same year that the Swiss showed such strong support for assisted suicide, Bradley Miller and Hugh Scher both argued, without any evidence whatever, that assisted suicide legislation would put the vulnerable at risk. It should be added here that not all the vulnerable agree with them, and they believe that they should have the right to have access to assisted dying when they feel their lives are no longer worthwhile to them.
But Scher goes much further than this. Take, for example, this:
Safeguards, he said, are not sufficient and people “who participate in these intentional killings are lesser for it and make the community less.”
This he no doubt says out of Christian conviction, but there is no reason to suppose it true. It is well known that assisted dying occurs. There are situations in which doctors feel they must act from compassion. It is an argument to what the Dutch call overmacht, which is a judicial concept to cover cases in which someone acts out of necessity, for example, from compassion, when someone is suffering the torments of hell and is seeking some release. The English bioethicist uses the example of a truck driver caught in the burning cab of his truck, knowing that the fire will reach him long before he can be freed, and begging an onlooking policeman to shoot him before he is burned alive. Would the policeman be lesser for it, if he acceded to the dying man’s request? I think not. And I cannot but think that a world in which people knew that they need not fear dying, because they could receive help to die if the suffering became more than they could bear, would be a kinder world, than the god of Christians has made it.
Of course, for Hugh Scher and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition there is a simple reason for their opposition to and condemnation of assistance in dying. Unaccountably, they do not think it is possible for anyone rationally to make a decision to end their life. So, assent to a decision to end one’s life is always not only irrational, but effectively to put a vulnerable person at risk. But what can be done by definitional fiat, can be undone by a simple denial. To fall back on Hitchens:
What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.
However, Huch Scher’s position is intuitively false. The people jumping to their deaths from the Twin Towers on 9/11 is proof positive that some ways of dying can be seen as preferable to others. There is no reason to think that it is irrational to choose the preferable way.
In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins argues that he would just as soon have his life taken out under an anaesthetic. For some reason Christians seem to think that there is some inner necessity to live every moment of one’s life, even the worst moments, when it really no longer counts, and the best of life is already in the past, and the future holds only dread. Hitchens himself, I am afraid, thought the same, for he thought there was something that properly belongs to a life span, as he put it in his last essay, thus suggesting that we couldn’t really know what it was until the very bitter end. But just like his opposition to abortion, this was an area that Hitchens himself never really explored seriously or deeply. He never directed his focused thought on these questions, and here, sadly, he pontificated. In his tribute to Hitchens, Richard Dawkins ends this way:
Every day of his declining life he demonstrated the falsehood of that most squalid of Christian lies: that there are no atheists in foxholes. Hitch was in a foxhole, and he dealt with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to be able to muster. And in the process, he showed himself to be even more deserving of our admiration, respect, and love.
No one should question Hitch’s courage, honesty and dignity at the end of life. He lived life to the full, and he lived it to the very end. But he left a question hanging there, at least for me. For he never answered the question, as he underwent all the suffering that expensive treatment could provide, which, as he said, only the wealthy could afford, whether such suffering should be demanded of each of us as we die, and what meaning it has, and what purpose?