Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Britain and C-384.

Brian Lilley writes for today's Examiner regarding the debate for assisted suicide in Britain:

Today was supposed to be the day that members of Parliament held their second hour of debate on the bill to legalize euthanasia, the vote to either support private member’s bill C-384 and send it to committee or mercifully kill the idea was supposed to happen tomorrow. Instead Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde has put her bill on life support, delaying any further debate until February. The reason is simple, Lalonde doesn’t have the votes.

There has been little debate about Lalonde’s bill or the euthanasia issue in general and what there has been has been either ill informed or misleading. People seem to confuse “pulling the plug”, what doctors at times call passive euthanasia; with what Lalonde is proposing, a very active euthanasia.

When the bill was given its first hour of debate my press gallery colleague Don Martin put his views forward in a
National Post column. Martin relates how he has informed his family members that “If incapacitated or enduring intense suffering caused by a hopelessly terminal condition, my will orders the plug pulled quickly and sets aside a pile of cash for one hell of a wake in my favourite pub.” From there Martin goes about setting up his support for Bill C-384, finishing off with yet another story about pulling the plug on a family member.

Here’s the thing though, we don’t need Bill C-384 to pull the plug on ourselves or a loved one, we already have that ability. Any lucid and competent individual can refuse medical treatment, any incapacitated individual who has left an advanced care directive or “living will” can spell out exactly when it is time to disconnect the respirator and allow nature to take its course. Even the Catholic Church, one of those “influential religious groups” that Martin says are “screaming loud enough” to scare MPs away from this issue, allows its members to reject medical treatment and die with dignity.

What Lalonde’s bill proposes to do is allow active euthanasia which requires a planned and purposeful act such as a doctor giving a patient a lethal injection. In the United States lethal injection has been challenged in court as a cruel and unusual punishment for death row inmates, here in Canada we have banned the death penalty as inhumane, too fraught with mistakes. Now Parliament is considering allowing the sick to be given what we find unacceptable for criminals.

Two notes from me:

Catholic doctrine will only allow patients in such hospitals to be removed from life support if that support is deemed no-obligatory by the church. A new "law" or ethical and religious directive states that artificial nutrition and hydration is obligatory. Lilley is hedging his argument by assuming that his advance directive will be honored in Canadian Catholic Hospitals. I don't know how many Catholic institutions there are in Canada but in the US, one in five patients is treated in a Catholic hospital.

And Lilley works to distinguish between active and passive "euthanasia" asserting that C-384 would legalize a very new and dangerous power of doctors and family members to "kill" patients. He is, like most opponents of aid in dying, making much of a very porous line. The "double effect" already allows a doctor to sedate a patient to death so long as pain relief is the objective, even knowing that the dose he is giving will kill the patient. This is an issue of intellectual honesty. Call it continuous deep sedation and it's not killing; call it aid in dying and it's illegal. Even the Catholic Church honors the "double effect" in a number of ways other than end of life. If a woman has an ectopic pregnancy and her life is in danger, the doctor is allowed by ethical and religious directives to operate on the woman and remove the fetus but not allowed to give her the much less invasive and dangerous medical abortion because the purpose of the former is to save the woman's life and of the latter is to "kill the baby." This sort of parsing is ludicrous and an absolute disregard for patients' rights. It should be called such.

And lastly, I'm all for the consequences of elections! I love the mechanics of democracy. But as I wrote elsewhere this morning, democracy is not the best tool to protect individual rights. If Lalonde doesn't have the votes to protect an individual's power over his own body, that is not great achievement of democracy, it is institutionalized prejudice and discrimination. After all, parliament members are also members of society, just as subject to ideology, prejudice, and discrimination as the rest of society, and for the influence of power, perhaps even more.

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