Blithely down the slippery slope
An anti-euthanasia protest in France in January. Photo: REUTERS/Jacky Naegele
The Royal Society of Canada (RSC) has recommended that the Criminal Code of Canada be amended so that people in poor health would have the right to physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The six-person panel, headed by Queen's University bio-ethicist Udo Schuklenk, claims that fears of the elderly and the infirm of being hastened to death without their full consent are unwarranted:
"The evidence from years of experience and research where euthanasia and/or assisted suicide are permitted does not support claims that decriminalization will result in vulnerable persons being subjected to abuse or a slippery slope from voluntary to non-voluntary euthanasia," reads a summary of the report's findings.
Anti-euthanasia observers give little credence to the report, claiming the panel is not at all comprehensive in its arguments. McGill bio-ethicist Margaret Somerville notes, for example, that the report fails to mention a 2010 poll of more than 2,000 Canadians, in which 71% favoured improving end-of-life care against 19% favouring legalized euthanasia (10% favoured both).
The RSC's cavalier dismissal of "slippery slope" fears seems to indicate that theory has trumped evidence in the panel's findings. A cursory overview of jurisdictions in which euthanasia and assisted suicide have become legal and culturally normalized should have given them pause before making such a sweeping statement.
When the Netherlands, to take the most commonly referenced example, legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide in 1984, assurances just like those of the RSC today were similarly issued. Proponents also said only the terminally ill who asked for euthanasia would be "treated."
Needless to say, patients who were not terminally ill, but only depressed, were soon asking for death, and the public was told not to worry, because only "rational" depressed people would be killed. Then, when Alzheimer patients started being killed without consent, the soothing argument that only patients who would have asked for death if only they were competent to do so would be killed.
By 1995 almost 3% of all deaths in Holland were the result of euthanasia or assisted suicide. A Dutch survey reviewed in the Journal of Medical Ethics looked at the figures for 1995 and found that in addition to 3,600 authorized cases, there were 900 others – a full 25% more – where doctors had acted without consent of the patient, mainly for reasons of dementia. In 15% of the cases the doctors stated they had not held discussions with the patient because they felt they were acting in the patient's best interest.
The study's lead researchers concluded, "The reality is that a clear majority of cases of euthanasia, both with and without request, go unreported and unchecked. Dutch claims of effective regulation ring hollow."
Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002. In 2008, a woman with "locked-in" syndrome – she was paralyzed but mentally alert and comprehending – asked for euthanasia and also asked for her organs to be harvested at the same time. Her wish was granted. Now Belgian doctors and bioethicists tour Europe promoting the double procedure in PowerPoint demonstrations touting the "high quality" of organs harvested from patients with neuro- or muscular-degenerative conditions. In 2010 Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu coauthored a paper in Bioethics arguing that some individuals could be euthanized "at least partly to ensure that their organs could be donated."
When the state has a stake in the deaths of vulnerable citizens, a society is in trouble. The novel Brave New World springs inevitably to mind. As Wesley J. Smith, lawyer for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture, wrote as far back as 1993 in Newsweek magazine:
We don't get to the Brave New World in one giant leap. Rather, the descent to depravity is reached by small steps. First, suicide is promoted as a virtue. Vulnerable people [like those with locked-in ... become early casualties. Then follows mercy killing of the terminally ill. From there, it's a hop, skip, and a jump to killing people who don't have a good 'quality' of life, perhaps with the prospect of organ harvesting thrown in as a plum to society. In a ten-year study that was published only a month ago, we find that The Dutch Medical Association now wants to expand the definition of who should qualify for suicide assistance. They now believe that non-medical reasons, such as loneliness and financial difficulty should qualify:
Vulnerability stems not only from health problems and the ensuing limitations, but also the measure in which people have social skills, financial resources and a social network. Vulnerability has an impact on quality of life and on prospects for recovery, and can lead to unbearable and lasting suffering. Are we Canadians finer people than the Dutch? Are our doctors more ethical? Does the RSC know something about human nature that we commonsensical hoi polloi don't? Aldous Huxley, if you were with us today, what could you possibly find to satirize? Barbara Kay is a Canadian columnist. This article first appeared in the National Post.
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