Issues Raised by Latimer Case

[6 November 1996]

by Cal Lambeth

(Ms. Lambeth, who is the parent of a child with a disability, presented these comments at a Winnipeg Vigil for Tracy Latimer, 22 February 1995.)

I believe that this is a personal tragedy for the Latimer family as any domestic crime involving the loss of life would be a tragedy. Tracy Latimer is a tragic victim of misguided beliefs. But apart from the individuals involved, it stands as a case which can have serious implications for citizens of Canada, and particularly for citizens who have disabilities. In fact, it will measure the values of the society in which we live.

On the surface, we might examine why it is that we feel the need to be here today. A crime was committed. A man was charged and convicted, and now his appeal is about to be heard. That is his right. It would seem the system has worked, so far. All Canadians are protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All of us are entitled to equal protection of the laws that govern us.

It must be made very clear that a human life is not to be snuffed out because another person, be they parent or caregiver or companion, feels that life is no longer worth living. It is not their decision to make. Mr. Latimer makes the point in his [first] appeal that because his daughter was so completely incapacitated both physically and intellectually, that he was entitled to "commit suicide for her".

If any such a ground of appeal were allowed it would put at risk ANY person with physical and mental disabilities who was unable to communicate his or her desires. Rather, the most vulnerable in our society must be offered the most stringent safeguards.

Since when in Canada do we allow children to choose death? There is much case law in Canada where social services agencies step in to take custody of the child. This is when the child is considered at risk because the parents are refusing treatment for their child's life threatening medical condition.

How could it be claimed that Tracy Latimer would have chosen to die if she could have only made her wishes known. Would we accept such a request from another twelve year old? That anyone would accept such a premise is an indication of their devaluing of the lives of Tracy and other children like her.

Parents do not own their children. They are not chattels or property to be disposed of at the option of their parents. There can be no doubt that bringing about the premature and planned death of one's child is completely contrary to the obligation of providing necessities for children.

The other ground of [the first] appeal is that the jury should have been able to disregard the laws of Canada, the Criminal Code, and make a decision based upon their conscience about what a just verdict would be. Were this line of reasoning to be adopted, we could just throw away the laws that govern us in such cases and allow judges and jurors to decide on a case by case basis whether a crime has been committed. Murder or mercy? It is not difficult to see how vulnerable many individuals in our communities would be under a system which allowed able bodied, able minded citizens to judge the worth of someone else's life and situation.

Murder is murder. Every human life must be valued. Each individual must be entitled to equal protection of the law. We must not allow a hierarchy of rights to be established whereby the act of killing one individual is met with condemnation while the act of killing someone else is described as "merciful" or "compassionate".

There are many of us in our communities who are willing to admit that an unlawful act took place in the killing of Tracy Latimer, but that a mandatory sentence of ten years is too harsh a penalty. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has said that Robert Latimer shouldn't spend one more day in jail.

Why? Because killing a severely disabled child was no big deal? Because her life couldn't possibly have had any value or meaning for her? This must be the underlying premise. Otherwise, how do we explain the outrage which arose in South Carolina when a distraught mother drowned her two little boys, and the further demand for the death penalty in that case. Why? Because those were "valuable lives" that were snuffed out?

Mr. Latimer says that this case has nothing to do with disability only pain. He states in his [first] appeal that he acted out of necessity to end her suffering. I ask the question: if a parent put to death an otherwise able bodied child who was awaiting surgery to repair a dislocated hip, would the reaction have been to feel compassion for the parent's action and an understanding of his "necessity" to kill her.

Whatever one's own feelings about mandatory sentencing, it must be made clear to our legislators that in determining sentences for the perpetrator of a crime, that the nature of the victim must not be allowed to be taken into account. That is to say, the court or jury shall not be entitled to pass judgment on the quality of life of the victim. To allow this to occur would be to establish a hierarchy of rights and penalties for victims and perpetrators.

The final outcome must be that Murder is Murder and the public must be educated in this. Every human life must be seen as having equal value; and every Canadian citizen must receive the full protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A Father's Perspective

by Brian Stewart

Forty plus years ago my parents were told not to take me home. Those concerned for my parents' well being, the medical profession, could not see my life as being worth living. Born with Cerebral Palsy, their vision was that I would not have a future...

Today, I am a parent. Three of my chosen children have Cerebral Palsy...At their births they too, had parents who were advised to leave their children behind... I have extreme difficulty with my vision of [their] future. I get scared. Many question [my children's] right to be in the community. What do I need and want to happen?

First let me say that I have an inner rage. The Latimers have received much written and financial support from hundreds of people across the country. This support is a strike against myself and my children. I need a public forum from which to address them. Their narrow perception, their limited vision and their actions are a great injustice needing to be addressed. To not address these people would be very wrong; they have attacked us; we must make them understand the brevity of their statements and actions.

Secondly, I need the Courts to protect us and our future generation. Latimer must serve out the appropriate sentence for taking a life. He must not be permitted to devalue a person's life just because of a disability and a lack of his vision.

Many people cannot, or do not wish, to accept that others can achieve similar standards and contributions having additional physical or mental challenges. Of even greater difficulty for many people is to acknowledge that traditional standards and contributions are not essential for an individual to live a meaningful and fruitful life.

Those of us gathered here today are colleagues, building a community which is better, stronger, integrated, and more accommodating. Yet it is of great sadness that we are brought together to fight for the most basic of rights...the right to live.

For more information or to contribute to the Tracy Fund contact: CCD, 926-294 Portage Ave, Winnipeg MB, R3C 0B9 (Tel: 204-947-0303, Fax: 204-942-4625)