'Right-to-Die' Advocates Pushing Hard In Canada

Author: David Morrison

'Right-to-Die' Advocates Pushing Hard In Canada

by David Morrison

Canadian doctors who refuse to kill their handicapped or debilitated patients could face discrimination charges if euthanasia death peddlers get their way.

In a brief submitted to the Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, Dr. Eike-Henner Kluge, former Director of Ethics and Legal Affairs for the Canadian Medical Association, attacked Canada's current law on assisted suicide on the grounds that it violates three "ethical" principles: "the principle of autonomy and respect for persons; the principle of equality and justice; and the principle of beneficence."[1] The Right to Die Society of Canada and the Humanist Association of Canada have both endorsed Kluge's opinions.

Kluge based much of his brief on the case of Ms. Sue Rodriguez, a woman with amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) whose 1994 legal challenge to prevailing law forbidding assisted suicide went all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. Kluge argued that Canadian law intruded upon Rodriguez's rights to "autonomy" because it forced her to endure a death which violated her "conception of the dignity of the person."

Kluge maintained that this concept, rooted in individual values, should be made the final measure of what is worthwhile in a life-or-death decision. Under Kluge's standard, doctors should be allowed to kill even patients who are

not undergoing serious physical pain:

"Ms. Rodriguez accepted palliation [treatment to relieve pain] to some degree. However it must be recognized that the offer of palliation as a way of dealing with her request [for assisted suicide] and as an attempt to honor her perspective was fundamentally inappropriate. It failed to come to grips with the core of the issue. The issue was not one of pain-of suffering in a physical sense. It was the violation of her sense of the dignity of the person."[2]

Suffering, Kluge argued, should not be measured in terms of physical pain alone: "The fact is that suffering should not be understood in merely physical terms. The defines suffering, , as 'the bearing or undergoing of pain, distress or tribulation' and in the definition of suffering includes grief."[3]

Kluge also alleged Canadian law discriminates against diseased or disabled persons because it prevents them from committing suicide when they want, and as they want- an ability that "non-handicapped" people possess.

"This inability-this handicap-could have been overcome if the law had allowed someone else to assist her [Rodriguez], or if the law had permitted someone to carry out her wishes for her if and when the time came," Kluge wrote. "However, the law imposed a bar against anyone assisting her in this fashion. Consequently the law insisted on confirming her in her inability to take advantage of opportunities otherwise available to members of society without providing for compensatory and equitable relief. The law, therefore, had the effect of discriminating against her on the basis of her handicap."[4]

Kluge's attack, and the legislative recommendations based on it, form part of the effort patient-killing promoters say they will mount when Canada's Parliament reconvenes this month. Although political observers in Canada are doubtful that the effort will progress through standard legislative channels, supporters might seek to mount the effort as a so-called "private member" bill where the fight could bypass some legislative hurdles and proceed. Just such a private member's bill provided the vehicle necessary to bring assisted suicide to Australia's Northern Territories in May 1995.

A symbol of the pro-killing movement

Austin Bastable, a 52-year-old man who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shares an additional part of the Canadian pro-killing effort. Bastable has taken a public stand in favor of the legislation and has worked to make himself a publicly recognized symbol of the pro-killing movement in Canada. He has had his face and cause plastered onto t- shirts, opened up a fund-raising telephone number and occupied several pages on the World Wide Web, courtesy of The Right to Die Society's DeathNET.

And the other side has not been silent. The position that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) took before the Canadian Senate emphasized not the radical autonomy which Kluge asserted as a human right but instead underscored the ways and degrees to which human beings in a society relate to one another. Questions of life and death cannot be examined as solely personal decisions of control, they said.

"Ironically, the use of rights language to allow for euthanasia or assisted suicide would undermine the rights of our citizens by introducing questions of power and control over human life itself," the bishops wrote. "Especially given the ways in which decisions would frequently lie in the hands of medical professionals or political decision makers, such a context of power and control could easily change questions of life into matters of social economic utility."[5]

The CCCB pointed out that there is a difference between mere "pity" and "compassion":

"The language of rights and self-determination frequently alters the meaning of compassion-entering into and sharing the suffering of another, to that of pity- evincing sadness over the suffering of another who is left to bear the pain alone.... How different this is from compassion, which involves entering into the pain of another, sharing his or her life. Here there is not isolation but only a deepening and admittedly difficult tie."

And the evidence makes it clear that the Canadian bishops' concerns are justified. Although Holland still, technically, makes both euthanasia and assisted suicide illegal, the Dutch courts allowed both under guidelines which, when first defined in 1981, looked every bit as "tough" as Kluge's. The first of the Rotterdam guidelines, for example, dictated that the person asking for the assisted suicide must be "experiencing unbearable pain."[6]

Kluge's position, as noted previously, doesn't even make much of pain but asserts a more personally autonomous idea of "suffering." Actually, Kluge criticized the Dutch regulations because of their alleged strictness, arguing that the guidelines are flawed because they do not allow doctors to kill patients who might have asked to be killed in the recent past but have not made the request lately. This "discriminates," in Kluge's view, against those who might be unconscious or unable to communicate their desire to die.

Holding death as a good

A major problem with the Dutch guidelines and, by extension, the Canadian proposal is that courts, medical associations and bureaucracies have a tendency to interpret whatever rules adopted in ever-broadening terms, which is only natural if attitudes are promoted which hold death as a good. Thus in 1986 the Hague Court of Appeals ruled that "unbearable pain" could be taken to mean "psychic suffering" or "the potential disfigurement of personality," a position remarkably close to Kluge's guideline for autonomous "suffering."

Likewise, in 1993, a Dutch court allowed doctors to kill their patients for psychiatric reasons if the patient is suffering depression.[7] The situation in Holland eerily prefigured the CCCB's observations about the differences between pity and compassion when, in 1991, the Dutch government reported that the third most frequently cited reason for terminating the lives of patients without their consent was "the family couldn't take it anymore."[8]

Concerns about this slippery slope are part of the battle currently raging over assisted suicide in Australia. The Northern Territories Legislative Assembly May 1995 bill has yet to be enacted. In the weeks after its passage, other Australian states were widely reported as eager to follow suit.

However, there has been a marked reluctance on the part of many States to take that step, and there are reportedly efforts underway in the Northern Territories to have the bill overturned before it can be enacted. Apparently a number of Australians share the apprehensions one the Northern Territories legislators expressed during debate:

"The harm to others will surely come about once the door is opened to legalized euthanasia

because, once open, that door can never be closed again. It can only be shoved open wider and wider.... There will be pressure to amend whatever bill was passed to include those who believe themselves excluded from the first instance.... As the provisions are broadened, invariably it will pick up others-for example, those who feel guilt at being a burden, of hanging around and still being alive at great cost to their family. Perhaps they are taking up a hospital bed at time when the health budget dollar is being squeezed tighter."

'Always a severe process'

Meanwhile, the debate in both Canada and Australia is taking place against a backdrop of Dutch policy change. In late August 1995, the Royal Dutch Medical Association recommended a policy revision which would require those seeking death from their doctors to take their own lives rather than have the doctor kill them. Association spokesman Reolof Mulder said that the new emphasis on patient responsibility was meant to alleviate emotional stress doctors experience in euthanasia. "Euthanasia is not something a doctor does with joy," Mulder said. "It's always a severe process."

David Morrison is a writer/researcher for HLI.


1 , Dr. Eike-Henner Kluge, submitted to the Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 , Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, presented to the Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

6 , The Anti-Euthanasia Task Force.

7 5 April 1993, , A3; 22 April, 1993, A2, cited in .

8 .

Taken from the February 1996 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe contact: HLI Reports 7845 Airpark Road, Suite E Gaithersburg, MD 20879

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN