Barbara Kay, mother of Jonathan Kay, also a columnist for the National Post — official paper, it sometimes seems, of the Tory Party – has said a lot of stupid things in her time, but perhaps the following is one of the stupidest:
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.”
This comes from an article in the National Post yesterday (23 January 2013), and the attempt to assimilate assisted dying to the execution of criminals is perhaps the most hyperbolic claim that has yet been made about assisted dying. No one that I know of has tried this before, and it just shows that Barbara Kay simply does not understand.
Assisted dying is not, contrary to Kay’s opinion, “state killing,” as though the state qua state would be involved as the agent in every act of assisted dying, and that assisted dying, were it to be legalised, would be directed and intentional killing by the state, as it would be were it an act of judicial killing mandated by legislature and courts. Making the suggestion is offensive, but it is also just stupid. Kay seems to think that an assisted dying law would turn every hospital into a Lubyanka Prison, and every doctor into a KGB agent, looking for inoffensive citizens to kill. Has she no control over her mind at all, or does she come out with these kinds of idiocies simply because she has a form of intellectual Tourette’s Syndrome? Instead of thinking things through she just lets her mind spew out the latest idiocy that arises from her unconscious without exercising any rational censorship over what ends up on the page or screen. The entire article, without exception, is evidence for this.
Barbara Kay has also not been paying attention. She suggests that those who advocate assisted dying have simply ignored the implications of making assisted dying public policy:
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.
Where has she been living for the last ten or twenty years? Under a rock?! The whole issue has been dealt with with great seriousness as a matter of public policy. That’s what the debate has been about. How could she have missed what the Royal Society of Canada said in its 2011 Expert Panel report on End-of-Life Decision Making? Is it asking too much of our journalists that they should make themselves acquainted with the subject matter of their articles before they release their “considered opinion” to the public? Or does this only apply to those who dare take a liberal stand on issues such as this? Kay, after all, can depend upon the reflex responses of her conservative constituency, so anything she says, just so long as it is negative, will go down well with reactionary and the self-satisfied. Is that it?
Of course, that’s not the end, for this careless journalist has much more to say. Here is her next step:
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.
Notice the heavy lifting that the expression ”state-assisted” is doing here. While the state does in fact legislate on all sorts of issues, mandating everything from food purity standards to speed limits and even more arcane things like standards of weights and measures, it’s very seldom that we hear these things spoken of in terms of state-sponsorship. These are rules that govern how things will be done, but the doing of it is done by private citizens in their capacity as food manufacturers, for instance, or drivers on our public highways. So why does Kay think she needs to repeat the her litany about the practice of state-assisted suicide, and compare assisted dying to execution, which indeed would be an act of the state?
Of course, the underlying purpose is clearly to arouse our fears, and to link the proposals for legalised assisted dying announced recently in Québec, subtly, but almost with certainty, to what happened in Nazi Germany, where the “euthanasia” programme, instituted by Hitler and his grisly gang of thugs, was indeed a programme of state-sponsored killing for eugenic purposes. Kay does not even need to mention this, and we know at once what she is saying, the trope is so common. So, when she gets to the point of saying that it is not the task of doctors to take lives, but “to heal, relieve suffering and comfort the afflicted,” we know that in the background lies the fear that doctors have too often in the past lent themselves to state-licensed inhumanity. The guerilla leader, Che Guevara. was a physician, as was Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command and operational leader of al Quaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the role of physicians in the Third Reich is well-known.
But then Kay goes on to repeat, what has been said by every other opponent of assisted dying, the questionable claims about the practice of assisted dying in places where it is now legal, like the Netherlands and Belgium. Here, she says, things are out of control. There has been, she points out, a 75% increase in the number of assisted dying cases in the Netherlands “in just eight years” she says, as though this were such a massive increase that we should all be concerned that things are spiraling out of control. According to Statistics Netherlands, Statline (the link won’t take you directly to Statline, but there is a link to Statline on the page linked, which summarises some of the details in order to reveal Rick Santorum’s dishonesty during the American presidential campaign), there were 136,058 deaths in the Netherlands in 2010. Of those deaths 3136 (not 4050, as Kay suggests) were assisted. That’s 2.6% of the total. But even if this did represent a 75% increase, it is not a significant increase, since the number is still quite low. As the option of assisted dying becomes better understood, we should expect the percentage to grow. Why should it not?
Assisted dying is rare in the Netherlands, as it is in other jurisdictions. And while Kay tries to increase her readers’ anxiety by speaking of those who were assisted to die without consent in Belgium, she did not read the fine print. Many of those included in that number were held to have been assisted to die, although the doctors did not consider that they were assisting their patient to die, since it is now widely debated whether large doses of opiates can be held to hasten death, especially in cases where dosage has been titrated upwards as pain worsens. Therefore, though these cases of “assisted dying without consent” came under Belgium’s assisted dying laws, they were not considered, for the most part, by the doctors themselves, as cases of assisted dying, but cases where, if anything, death was the double effect of the doctors’ duty to control pain. My point is that Kay’s figures are wrong, they represent an insignificant increase, in the case of the Netherlands, and in the Belgian figures, they are simply being misunderstood and misrepresented. Kay could have made herself aware of these facts had she bothered to take the time.
But Kay is still not finished. She then goes on to make a completely unwarrantable claim:
Intractable pain during terminal illness is the issue for most euthanasia proponents. But virtually any pain can be managed, and strictly controlled palliative sedation (which eases passage to, and may hasten death) is already legal in Quebec.
First of all, this is untrue. There is much pain that cannot be controlled. However, Kay simply ignores several facts here. First, pain is not the first, nor the main issue, regarding assisted dying. It is simply no longer the issue for those who support assisted dying. Suffering is. And there is suffering that no amount of palliation can control. Oh, certainly, it might be controlled by putting a person into a coma until they die “naturally,” though it is hard to see how putting a person into a drug-induced coma can be considered in any reasonable sense natural. Besides, the person who is going to be rendered comatose as she dies may have some thoughts as to the indignity of that, and might much rather be helped to die more quickly. I, for example, would not want to be rendered comatose, and then, without my knowledge, and for however long a period, be either cared for or ignored until I were dead, and I see no reason why others might not justly object to this as the only option after all other attempts at controlling their pain and distress had failed. Has Kay no imagination at all?
Kay also, in this connexion, raises the completely irrelevant point that some doctors have never received pleas for help to die:
Thus, actual pleas for active euthanasia are uncommon. Oncologist Caroline Girouard of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal testified that “In all my years of practice, I never got one request for euthanasia.”
But so what? What earthly difference would this make? And, besides, doctors make it very clear what their position on such matters are. Most patients know, within an ace of the truth, exactly what position their doctors take on the issue of assisted dying. So it should occasion no surprise that some doctors should never receive any requests for euthanasia. What would be the point? Also to be noticed is that this is a doctor in a religiously administered hospital, and that Judaism is completely opposed to assisted dying, as are many other religions. Indeed, as a Jew, Kay herself may be opposed to assisted dying for precisely this reason, though, all too typically, she does not even address this question. This would explain a lot.
Of course, no article opposing assisted dying would be complete without the claim that “hard cases make bad law.” Now, I am not at all sure that this is true, especially when such hard cases are often repeated. But Kay picks out a very special case that recently made the news in Belgium. Let Kay tell it in her own words:
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.
Notice, first of all, the prejudicial expression “put to death.” This is false. However, I don’t want to comment in detail on this. I want the reader to notice just one other thing. Let’s take the justice of the original decision for granted. I am not going to get involved in the rights and wrongs of the original case. But Kay’s imagined scenario is nothing at all like the original case. She asks us to consider an alternative scenario:
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?
But this is not at all a parallel case. In this the surviving twin is not only healthy but sighted! In other words, he would be just like the rest of us when we lose loved ones. In the original case both brothers, who are already deaf, would soon have been blind as well. Their world would have been without sound or sight. Their only comfort in their silent world had been each other. Soon, they were facing the prospect of living out the remainder of their lives in a dark and silent world. That’s hard enough in all conscience if you were born that way, as Helen Keller was. But Helen Keller was also a remarkably intelligent and determined young woman. She was an extraordinary person. But to lose one’s sight after having lived in a silent world for so long: What, really, would be left? Whether or not we approve of the actions of the Belgian doctors who helped these men die, Kay’s alternate scenario is not the same; indeed, it has no relevant parallel to the original case that she considers, and so it sheds no light whatsoever on the question of the justice or legitimacy of the original case. And this, again, is just stupid.
And so that is my conclusion. Barbara Kay is just stupid. That’s sad for her, and for the rest of us, because as a columnist she has some clout. But she does not understand, and makes every effort not to understand what is at issue here. She is not just ignorant. She is stupid, and she does what stupid people do. She refuses to learn. She refuses to consider any other side of the story than the one that she had already adopted before she sat down to write. Such people are dangerous, especially when they are commenting on matters of great public concern. We can do without the Barbara Kays of the world. She is, sadly, a blot on the Canadian cultural landscape. Canadians deserve better.