M.P.s Take a Stand for Fundamental Human Rights

(15 April 1998) By voting down M.P. Svend Robinson's motion on euthanasia on 24 March 1998, Parliament upheld Canada's protection of vulnerable citizens. Motion 123 read, "That a Special Committee be appointed ...to review the provisions of the Criminal Code dealing with euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and that the Committee be instructed to prepare and bring in a bill..."

In a press release, Robinson pointed out that public opinion polls suggest that over 70% of Canadians support legalizing physician-assisted suicide. This support was not evident in the House, where the motion was defeated, 160 to 71. Prior to the vote, Canadians voiced their opposition. In December 1997, M.P. Nelson Riis presented a BC petition. He told Parliament, "The petitioners point out that the majority of Canadians ...respect the sanctity of human life ... [and] believe that physicians ...work to save lives and not end them. The petitioners are calling upon Parliament to ensure that the present provisions of the Criminal Code ...prohibiting assisted suicide be enforced vigorously and that Parliament make no change in the law ..." M.P. Janko Peric (Cambridge) and M.P. Maurice Vellacott (Wanuskewin) also presented petitions opposing the decriminalization of assisted suicide.

During the debate on the motion M.P. Vellacott took on pollsters focusing on a 1997 BC poll indicating 54% of British Columbians support euthanasia. He stated, "...that slim majority would collapse if three simple steps were taken...if the public were better informed about what euthanasia is and is not and what the Criminal Code does not say about the end of life issues. In Canada it is perfectly legal to refuse life sustaining treatment and allow oneself to die. Such refusal is not considered euthanasia. The poll in BC revealed that over two-thirds of supposed euthanasia supporters mistakenly believe that euthanasia includes refusing treatment. Apparently a considerable number of people who appear to support euthanasia do not realize that what they would like to see legalized is already legal in Canada....Only a minority, 23% of all who were surveyed based their opinion on the belief that assisted suicide is a basic human right."

M.P. Paul Steckle (Huron) reminded his colleagues of the atrocities of the Nazi regime. "I personally fear that society would devise an infinite number of uses for death once it has become a legal means for solving human problems. During one of the world's darkest time periods, the Nazi party developed and promoted a set of proposals designed to weed out certain people who were considered to have no value to society. The idea was adopted by the general public and the medical community of the day. As a result, the war machine of the day euthanized more than 300,000 mentally handicapped children..." stated M.P. Steckle.

M.P. Jason Kenny (Calgary Southeast) speaking against the motion declared,"[W]e must never, in this society animated by a profound understanding of the inviolable dignity of the human person allow a radical notion of personal autonomy or a disordered understanding of human liberty to overcome our most profound obligation ...as legislators to protect human life."

Proponents for the right to die spoke in favor of the motion. Many of their comments displayed confusion about the issue being considered. Svend Robinson in a press release linked the cases of Sue Rodriguez, Robert Latimer and Dr. Nancy Morrison and urged "changes to the current law to allow physician-assisted suicide for competent, adult, terminally ill patients who choose that option." Tracy Latimer was not a competent, adult, terminally ill patient seeking a doctor assisted suicide. She was a murder victim. M.P. Pauline Picard (Drummond) spoke on behalf of the motion and linked it to the Nancy B. Case, which hinged on consent to treatment, not euthanasia issues.

McGill Professor Margaret Somerville tells us that the confusion in the euthanasia debate is there both by accident and design. She writes, "One important way to promote the legalization of euthanasia is through various types of confusion. These confusions span, first, the domain of semantics—confusion in definition; confusion created through choice of language; and confusion of association and analogy. Second, they span important areas of ethical and legal analysis—confusion of means and ends; confusion in the use of legal concepts of intent and causation; and confusion in interpreting common law precedents."

George Verstraete, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press (4 April 1998), dispels some of the confusion about the so-called protection safeguards would bring to bear on a system of legalized euthanasia. He writes, "According to the [Dutch Attorney General Remmelink] report there were in 1990 alone about 12,000 cases in which doctors intentionally caused the death of a patient, of which about 6,000 were without the patient's consent.

With patient consent, doctors directly killed 5,859 individuals—2,300 by active euthanasia, 400 by physician assisted suicide and 3,156 by a 'morphine overdose intended to terminate life' not to alleviate pain. Without patient consent, doctors killed 5,941 individuals—1,000 by "active euthanasia" and 4,941 by 'morphine overdose intended to terminate life' not alleviate pain. These numbers are solid. They are based on self-reporting by doctors and all of the doctors reporting were given immunity from criminal prosecution."

Verstraete uses these numbers to project what could happen in Canada if euthanasia were legalized. He writes, "These 1990 Dutch numbers form a reasonable basis for predicting what would happen here. In 1990, Holland had a population of 15 million....Canada, 28 million. If euthanasia were legalized...Canadian doctors would kill over 20,000 patients annually, half with patient consent, half without patient consent."

Verstraete points out, "Recent Dutch studies indicate euthanasia numbers have increased by 40 percent since 1990, but the basic ratio of half with consent and half without consent has remained the same. If those studies are correct, and we have every reason to believe they are...Canadian doctors would kill 28,000 patients annually, half with consent, half without consent." As there are significant differences between Dutch and Canadian societies, Canada would not necessarily replicate the Dutch experience. The argument can be made that vulnerable people would be in greater jeopardy in Canada.

CCD opposes legalized euthanasia because we believe that people with disabilities would be over-represented in the category of persons killed without their consent. As has been the case in Holland, procedural safeguards would not offer us any real protection.