I have just taken Alex Schadenberg’s advice and have written a letter to the editor of the Vancouver newspaper, The Province, in response to its edtiorial on the ruling by Madame Justice Lynn Smith of the British Columbia Supreme Court in the matter of Carter v. Attorney General (Canada). The editorial is one of the most bull-headedly opinionated as well as generally false pieces of editorialising that it has been my misfortune to read. Here, for your delectation, is the editorial (linked here):
Asssisted suicide ruling is wrong
Like abortion, the homicide euphemistically known as “assisted suicide” is an issue on which almost everyone has firm opinions that are unlikely to be reconsidered after hearing the arguments of other people, including last week’s ruling by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith.
What is strange about Smith’s decision is that it’s unclear what has changed since the Supreme Court of Canada rejected “assisted suicide” – really just state-sanctioned euthanasia – 19 years ago or, for that matter, when Parliament debated the issue two years ago and decided not to change the law.
Allowing doctors to kill patients nearing the end of their lives, even with their consent, cheapens the sanctity of life, no matter how horrible the disease a patient is suffering from.
Suicide is legal in Canada. Patients with ALS, who are at the forefront of these legal cases, already have the right to end their lives while they are capable if they don’t wish to see their lives through to their natural conclusions.
In some of the very few countries where so-called “assisted suicide” has been allowed, euthanasia has soon followed.
Canada must retain its absolute prohibition on the killing of others if we are to continue to be a nation that values life.
Truly, such childish dogmatism scarcely deserves notice, let alone comment, but, since this stupidly bull-headed attitude is so common amongst the religious opponents of assisted dying — of which I suppose the writer of this editorial to be one — did Alex Schadenberg himself write it, I wonder? — and since this kind of religiously informed prejudice has such a negative effect on so many people, I thought it right to write at some length in response, even though at the end it is suggested that the newspaper would welcome brief comments. Nevertheless, I thought it appropriate to be a bit more forthcoming in my response, and so I wrote as follows (not expecting it, of course, to be published, so I include it here):
Who on earth writes your editorials?!
I am referring specifically to the editorial entitled “Assisted suicide ruling is wrong” in today’s issue of The Province.
Not only is it irresponsibly opinionated and uninformed, it is also sometimes simply mistaken.
The opening line is plainly idiotic: “Like abortion, the homicide euphemistically known as “assisted suicide” …,” etc. First of all, there are very few jurisdictions in which abortion is considered or has ever been considered homicide. But then to add that few people will be swayed by arguments, is a pretty silly position to take, as though nothing relevant could be added to what is already known or thought on this issue. If this is the truth, why write an opinion piece in the first place? Presumably, you expect this to have some influence.
The editorialist continues with the claim that it is unclear what has changed since the Supreme Court rejected “assisted suicide”. But, anyone reading the judgement in Rodriguez could not say that the court rejected assisted suicide at all. There was a 5-4 split in the decision, and the dissenting voices argued, in written dissent, that the majority decision was wrong, and that there is no necessity underlying the assisted suicide provisions of the criminal code that made those provisions such as to be “subject … to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” This is the only condition under which, according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, rights therein granted can be limited, and the court allowed that Rodriguez’s charter freedoms would be (by the court’s decision) violated — but, so went the majority verdict, justly violated. There is therefore a good reason to revisit that decision, since, in the meantime, a number of jurisdictions have legalised assisted dying, to test whether or not this limitation was justified.
The editorial goes on to speak in terms of “allowing doctors to kill patients,” and suggests that this would cheapen the sanctity of life. There are two things to be said here. First, in so far as sanctity of life is a religious principle, it is inapplicable to the law in a democratic society. But there is no reason to think that the value of life will be cheapened by taking seriously the wishes of suffering people to hasten their deaths in order to escape suffering that they consider intolerable. Why should a person’s disease be prescriptive for that person’s experience of dying? Some people die in peace, many die in misery. There is no obvious reason why people should be unable to make choices about how they wish to die, just as they are permitted to make choices about how they wish to live. Second, it is irresponsible to characterise assistance in dying as “allowing doctors to kill patients.” This is a characteristically blunt way of making the point, but it is also untrue to suggest that people in conditions as bad as some experiences of dying can be, or as the experiences of some people who are living with some diseases can be, are simply being killed rather than being helped to die as they choose. It is a deliberately tendentious way of speaking about what can be an act of great mercy and compassion. I know that the Roman Catholic Church routinely takes this position. If that is the point of view from which this editorial is being written, then in honesty the editorial should spell it out, instead of hiding behind the studied impersonality of an editorial.
The editorial goes on to say that people with ALS already have a right to die by suicide, so, if they want to, they can end their lives while they are still able. This is precisely why Madame Justice Smith says that the assisted suicide provisions of the Criminal Code violate Ms Taylor’s right to life, because she could only die by suicide if she shortens her life. Besides, it needs to be pointed out that many attempts at suicide fail, and that the situation is often made worse than it was before.
The editorial goes on to say something that is entirely false, instead of just misleading, as the rest of it is. It says: “In some of the very few countries where so-called “assisted suicide” has been allowed, euthanasia has soon followed.” This is not true, and I challenge the writer of this editorial to name one jurisdiction of which this is true. Switzerland has had provisions for assisted suicide since 1941. Switzerland does not permit euthanasia. The Netherlands assisted dying legislation, like the Belgian and the Luxemburg legislation, includes both assisted suicide and euthanasia, and have from the start. The American situation is similar. Oregon has an assisted dying legislation which permits assisted suicide. No euthanasia legislation has followed.
There is absolutely no reason why “Canada must retain its absolute prohibition on the killing of others if we are to continue to be a nation that values life,” if by “the killing of others” the writer includes what is appropriately called assisted dying. There is a well-known paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled “Raping and making love are different concepts: so are killing and voluntary euthanasia.” (JME, vol 14, no 3 , 148-49)
I seldom comment on editorials, but one written so badly, and thought through so carelessly, deserves some negative attention.
I hope you will take a few of these things to heart. Your newspaper is doing a disservice to its readership, and to the wider discussion of the matter of assisted dying in Canada.