My car went into the garage for its spring tune-up last week. I took the opportunity to ask the operator for his take on the media furor around euthanasia and assisted suicide.
"It seems to me we show our humanity by the way we care for those who are dying," he said. "Don't we also give dignity to people when we care for them whether they are capable of responding or not?"
Susan Griffiths, who died in Switzerland last week, has asked us to debate what she has done and, in the end, to approve of it. She wanted the government to affirm assisted suicide in law and the culture to embrace it. In effect, to give it a stamp of moral approval. She dramatically reopened a debate that pits quite differing world views against one another. Who can't admire Griffiths' spirit and articulate defence for what she chose to do? Lindor Reynolds has described her as an "elegant woman," despite her illness. In Susan Griffiths' own words, she had always been in control of her life. She railed against losing that control.
Yet do we really want to give our medical profession the authority to administer the drugs that will end someone's life, or let them be the means to assist someone else to take their own life?
Some might find it easy to ignore the argument of the slippery slope, but it is undeniably there. Certainly the experience of countries such as Belgium and Holland would argue it exists. Even though in Holland, euthanasia was originally meant only to be for terminally ill adults competent to give consent, the current Groningen protocol allows parents to ask for the death of disabled children, allows children between 12 and 16 to ask for euthanasia with the consent of parents and those 16 or older to do so without such consent. Reports now suggest euthanasia is involved in more than 500 deaths a year in which the persons were not competent to give consent.
My friend the garage operator would say showing dignity and respect for the person is less a matter of paying attention to appearance and style and more about a belief that we have worth because we are human beings. Medical ethicist Dr. Margaret Somerville of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law would perhaps call this a divide between two world views. In the one world view, which she calls pure science, "we are highly complex, biological machines, whose most valuable features are our rational, logical, cognitive functions." Once these go, our lives might as well end.
The other world view she calls the science-spirit view, which says "human life consists of more than its biological component, wondrous as that is. It involves a mystery — at least the 'mystery of the unknown' — of which we have a sense through intuitions, especially moral ones."
Adds Somerville, "This world view... sees death as part of the mystery of life, which means that to respect life, we must respect death. According to this view, although we might be under no obligation to prolong the lives of dying people, we do have an obligation not to kill them. And that rules out euthanasia."
It is not coincidental the founder of Dignitas in Switzerland, where Susan Griffiths died, Ludwig Minelli, acknowledged to the writer of an article about the clinic in the March 2010 issue of Atlantic Monthly, that the rumour was true that he had disposed of urns with ashes of people who had died at the clinic by throwing them by night into Lake Zurich. Surely the name given his clinic is ironic.
There is good reason why it has been people with disabilities who have been on the forefront of the struggle against assisted suicide and euthanasia. They are the people who have to contend with indignity every day of their lives. Many of their disabilities are not pretty. They often deal with pain. They often face discrimination based on their disabilities. Many do not have control of aspects of their lives.
Yet who would say their lives are not worth living? Someone who knows first-hand how people with disabilities can be devalued is Dr. Gregor Wolbring, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Calgary. He was born without legs, a victim of thalidomide. Toronto writer Sue Careless has written about him, "He is not a man to mess with." He is a research scientist in biochemistry and molecular biology and also teaches in the department of community rehabilitation and disabilities studies.
Wolbring is blunt: "Euthanasia is not good for me. It is not good for society." At a symposium on euthanasia in Toronto, he told his audience he especially feared joining euthanasia with genetics. Even though it is estimated 60 per cent of us carry some genetic defect, genetic testing for sex selection is denounced, but similar testing for disabilities is approved.
"In the United States, you get three years for killing a disabled child but 30 years for killing an able-bodied child," he told his audience. Canada is little different: Wolbring says if Robert Latimer had premeditated the murder of one of his healthy children, he would have had to serve 25 years without parole.
A culture is not elevated by giving support to means that hasten the death of people who might be disabled or unable to care for themselves any longer.
A culture that treats dying people as "disposable products," as Somerville put it, has lost a sense that life is in any sense sacred. She quotes an Australian politician, "When you are past your 'use by' or 'best before' date, You should be checked out as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as possible." That is the farthest from giving dignity either to life or death.
Life is precious. So is every human being, even when we become frail and the beauty we once carried fades. If those approaching the end of life are viewed as disposable, we're really devaluing everyone's life. Euthanasia and assisted suicide ask us whether we are willing as society to make a pact with one another — a pact not to do anything that makes it easier to do away with burdensome people, nor to hasten by unnatural means the day of our own death. Nothing can diminish the dignity of such a choice.
Harold Jantz is a retired editor and Christian journalist.