This is an old editorial I did long before choiceindying,com existed (some time in 2010). I was sorting through some old stuff and thought it might interest a few of you. It was done for Dying with Dignity Canada‘s newsletter, The Voice. They edited it down quite a bit, and left out much of my more mordant comments about religion and the part that it plays in keeping the laws repressive and cruel. I thought some of you might find it interesting, and it is a bit of a change of pace from the hectic comment stream on some recent posts!
Well, the votes are in and the result is known. Bill C-384 has been defeated. Of course, everyone sensed that this would happen. So, no surprise there. Very few surprises in the debate either. Members pulled the same old chestnuts out of the fire and then mumbled them for a moment or two with borderline intelligibility. They knew that the Bill would go down to defeat. This was not a matter of argument, but of religion. It would be true to say, I believe, that there was not one intelligent point made in opposition to Francine Lalonde’s Bill. The same old tired excuses not to face the question of dying head on, the same old hiding behind the vulnerable and the disabled, the same old refusal to face the fact of intense and unbearable human suffering. The same old reflexive support for palliative care to the exclusion of freedom for the dying, the same old prevarications about places where assisted dying has been legalised. For the most part Members of Parliament just don’t care. During the debate, and at other times, petitions were presented, which is normal procedure. However, some members went to greater lengths than usual. One petition, for example, was organised by the St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Parish in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The MP for the area, Michael Savage, even thanked a church member by name for organising the petition. Another MP, Tim Uppal, thanked the Catholic Women’s League for their petition. In incidental remarks made during debate it seemed clear that this Bill was being rejected principally on religious grounds. Yesterday, for example, 20 April 2010, one member even mentioned the prayer sessions he and family members had had with his dying mother and father, using a Benedictine book of prayer, and testified that his experience of his dying parents, and the choices they made, had even changed his mind on this Bill.
The footprint of the church in Canadian public space is still enormous. If MPs are not themselves religious – which many of them are, and are of course entitled to be – they are very cautious because they do not want to lose the religious vote. At election time churches can make a disproportionate amount of noise, and against assisted dying the churches are thoroughly organised, right down to the grass-roots. The Roman Catholic Church is especially well organised, and funds and supports a number of apparently independent organisations, such as the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Institute for Marriage and the Family, Priests for Life Canada, the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Life Canada, and so on. The list is long. The churches issue position papers, encyclicals, declarations, sermons, petitions, commentary, op-ed pieces, TV appearances. One thing about the religious. They may be in the dark ages so far as thinking goes, but their propaganda is state of the art, and some of them plainly walk the corridors of power.
The arguments are as predictable as the sun rising every morning. Here are the main ones: (i) Canadian law is based on the sanctity of life; (ii) it’s illegal; (iii) all human life is dignified (sacred, in other words); (iv) the disabled and the vulnerable will be at risk; they might even be pressured by someone to end their lives; we need to protect the freedom and dignity of the disabled; (v) palliative care will suffer; (vi) we don’t have enough palliative care, so people will ask for assistance in dying for lack of care; (vi) respect for human life will diminish; (vii) the trust between doctors and patients will be eroded; (viii) killing patients puts an unacceptable emotional burden on doctors and nurses; (ix) doctors are opposed to assisted dying; (x) no one need die in pain and distress; palliative care is the humane alternative to assisted dying; (xi) our lives are not our own, and therefore we have no right to end our lives; we are obligated to live our lives until we die a natural death; (xii) medicine is advancing every day; a person who was helped to die might have been saved by a medical breakthrough; (xiii) no law is foolproof, and unless we can frame a law that will never be abused, we (parliamentarians) should not legalise assisted dying, for that would make us responsible for murder; (xiv) Bill C-384 is flawed, e.g., the definition of competence is inadequate … perhaps you spotted a few more. None of them are adequate against the issue of freedom for the dying, and their right to choose how they will die.
No one who favours assisted dying should ignore possible issues of concern, and it may in fact be that Bill C-384, as it stood, needed some fine-tuning, but that’s precisely what cannot happen unless, after second reading, it gets sent to committee. And this is what members refused to do, although this was the primary appeal of a number of members. The Hon Mauril Bélanger, in a speech on 20th April 2010, made this appeal earnestly, telling the House that this was already being debated in the country, and that it was time for Parliament to direct the debate and clarify the issues. He said: “Here in the House, we talk of dying with dignity. Others talk about assisted suicide or even euthanasia. Maybe we are talking about the same thing, hence the need to define the terms. Let us try to have an enlightened debate, not a debate that leads to confusion. We will not clarify anything by refusing to study it.” (my emphasis) But this is something, apparently, that those who oppose assisted dying are not prepared to do. They do not want to open this matter to discussion, let alone decision. This shows that they are afraid.
In the division on the motion Bill C-384 was defeated 228 to 59. What does this decision tell us about the humanity and compassion of Members of Parliament today? It is well known that a majority of Canadians support assistance in dying, but some members claimed that this support is uninformed and spongy. The debate provided a clear sign that there is a new religious wind blowing in the country. We may be seeing the retreat of secularism and the growth of a new religiosity. This will make it even more difficult to get our message across. So we need to do more to see that more people are informed on the issues, that dying people are not simply abandoned to the callousness of parliament. There is not one solid argument against assisted dying in all those that were raised in the House. Not one.! All of them depend for their primary force on religious considerations. Yet such considerations cannot define how Canadians, who may not share those religious beliefs, are forced to die. This is a matter of human rights, and, despite all the opposition on the grounds of human dignity, this is a matter of human dignity. People have a right to die in ways that they themselves determine, and it is time that religion stepped back and let people live and die according to their own values, and not according to the values of those – and it does not even matter whether they are in a majority or a minority–whose beliefs are based on religion. Margaret Somerville may try to tell you that there is a secular sacred. Well, she’s wrong. There are no secular absolutes. Because we have respect for human life, we have to respect the decisions of those, living in great misery, who wish to end their lives with dignity – dignity as they define it, not as others do.
But Parliament has decided against freedom for Canadians, and for the continued suffering and misery of those who would choose otherwise if given the freedom to do so. A sad day for Canadian democracy. The last word belongs to Francine Lalonde, who brought forward this Private Member’s Bill, and defended it articulately, intelligently and bravely against insuperable odds. These are the keywords, and the bottom line of the whole discussion: “I did not know what unbearable pain was. Now I do and I have learned that medicine, with all its progress, can only provide help with side effects such as hallucinations or other terrible effects to the body. We have to have the right to choose. I am speaking on behalf of the vulnerable. They are the ones who need this type of legislation the most because only this type of legislation will allow them to be the people they choose to be.”