Friday, September 23, 2005

Life, Death and the Meaning of Dignity in Relation to Assisted Suicide

So Canada having “sorted out” abortion and same-sex marriage by litigation and political manoeuvrings over the last many years is now, apparently, going to have another chance to “debate” the issue of “assisted suicide”. One may hope for a good result but would be excused for doubting that the right course will prevail. One by one the settled verities have been toppled until we look around a vast expanse of destroyed conceptions. As it has been with other issues in relation to the beginning and developing of life, so it is again with respect to the end of life.

The last time this matter came to the Supreme Court of Canada in the Rodriguez case of 1992, the judges split 5 – 4 on whether the Criminal Code offended the Charter, narrowly upholding the law. The issue was whether, in part, Sue Rodriguez, a woman afflicted with an incurable disease, should succeed in having the provisions that ban assisted-suicide struck down. Had Justice Sopinka, who voted with the majority against her application, died a few months earlier than he did, Canada might well have legal assisted-suicide today.

Senate Hearings refused to recommend assisted-suicide legalization and many of those involved in that hearing process attributed this, in large measure, to the overwhelming presence of hospice and palliative care workers (and those who had used such approaches) who gave testimony at the Hearings. They witnessed to another way to approach death and dying and it was undeniable that the “other way” that of the solipsist, was a counsel of despair not in the interest of society at large.

Yet, with the seeming inevitability of an ice age, the endorsement of a standard of “dignity” in the area of euthanasia that does not accord with the subjectivist “dignity” in abortion and same-sex marriage, calls for the smooth trowels of the times.

According to Stephanie Rubec, Senior Political Reporter for Sun Media, MPs will vote on Bloc MP Francine Lalonde's bill Oct. 31, which amends the Criminal Code to give certain people the "right to die with dignity".

Bill C-407 will first be debated during second reading in the Commons at the end of next month before MPs vote on whether to send it to a parliamentary committee for review or reject it entirely.

The Bill, if passed, will allow a lucid adult in extreme pain whose treatment has failed, or who has a terminal illness, to be assisted in committing suicide.
The amendment would re-write two sections of the Criminal Code in which assisted suicide is categorized as homicide.

In the background, if one listens, one can hear the singing: “hi ho, hi ho, its off to court we go” the well known chant of the little dwarves of the Court Party and, sure as shooting, once the Legislature votes this autumn on a Bill from the Quebec M.P., it will be off to Court if Parliament or the Legislatures don’t give the dwarves what they want first.

At least going the governmental route first is the right way around! But no matter what method is chosen the push for assisted suicide should not be allowed to succeed in Canada. Why not?

Well, dignity is not something we just “make up” to fit what our wills want. The same-sex lobby succeeded in getting the country to accept that the dignity of same-sex couples was offended if they couldn’t marry. This was not true and, unfortunately, has further confused the meaning of dignity.

Is it an offence to the dignity of two brothers that they cannot be sisters? Hardly. It was not an offence against dignity to deny couples of the same-sex a supposed right to marry that most believed came from the natural fact of male and femaleness (like “brothers” or “sisters”) despite what they argued and got some judges to support. It offended their wills to be sure but not all offences against what people want can possibly constitute “dignity offences”. If “what I want” is equal to a “dignity right” then we are all in trouble.

For when dignity is in the eye of the beholder we all have concern since dignity is one of those things that is supposed to be beyond human choosing. If your dignity depends on my “choice” (consider the abortion issue here) then so much for dignity. Similarly, if “dignity” is unrelated to the category of human being but is based on something else (such as my sense of the worthiness of my life) then, again, we have grounds to worry.

If my dignity depends, again, only on my choice then it is a pretty fragile thing. If I am temporarily insane, depressed or what have you and choose to end my life based upon my idea that I am worthless we would hope that others would stop me from such a suicide. Why? Well, because there are other things than an untrammelled exercise of the will.

In fact, our respect for the dignity of the human person is such that we do not want to counsel people to kill themselves even if they think their lives are worthless. We forbid people to counsel suicide under the Criminal Code on the basis that human dignity should stop people from urging others to kill themselves. Similarly, the actual fact of assisting another to kill him or herself is also proscribed and rightly so.

Now along comes “assisted-suicide” and the claim is that this is going to be limited to that narrow category of people who are in full command of their senses but who, for some reason or other, believe that their life no longer has purpose or meaning or who are in pain. They wish to end it all. Suicide, so the logic goes, is legal, so why if I cannot kill myself, should someone else be prohibited from helping me effectuate my will? Here is why.

A person may, in the darkness of his or her own soul, decide that life is no longer worth the pain or suffering he or she is enduring. This state, all too common, is tragic and no compassionate person, knowing this, would fail to reach out to a sufferer. And if a person does fail to offer support in dealing with suffering most people would reject the failure to assist as immoral or at least seriously lacking in compassion. The root of the word compassion is, of course, “to suffer with”.

There is another category, that of people suffering from illnesses. These may be terminal or not but in any case the person wishes to “end it all” as well and does not wish to go through whatever it is that they are tired of facing. This may be depression: illness and suffering in which they fear the steps further down the road of decay to the death that all of us sooner or later must face. Again, no compassionate person can fail to recognize the fear and perhaps pain or suffering in such a state and do what he or she can to assist a person in the process of dying to deal with the pain and the suffering (they are different things). That is what hospice and palliative care are all about.

If we allow people to kill other people, or to help them kill themselves, we are extending suicide (that we recognize to be a tragic thing) outwards in ways that cannot be safeguarded. The risk of extension has been well documented in the Dutch experience where notorious cases have been documented in which “post spousal loss depression” and “anorexia” have satisfied the so-called safeguards of the Dutch system. In these two cases the people involved were “terminated” by physicians since they fit within the “guidelines”.

But it is well known by those who have studied the literature that the meaning of “terminal” and “intractable pain” like the meaning of “failure of the medical treatment” opens doors so wide that any kind of euthanasia vehicle may be driven through them.

Those who have examined the Dutch situation closely (the Canadian Senate and the House of Lords Committee some years ago in England) chose to go the other way because the supposed “safeguards” were unsafe. That is what Canada must do again. It must reject this false claim that dignity requires assisted-death. It doesn’t and genuine “dignity” will, in fact, be threatened by it. We are being urged to cross the Rubicon again.

We should resist crossing the Rubicon here. That is the river that, if you recall your mythology, once crossed, one could never get back across again.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 102
Iain T. Benson©