Right to Die Becomes Obligation



September 23, 2014

Mark Penninga, Lethbridge Herald, Sept 23, 2014:

Recently Mr. John Warren, vice chair of the organization Dying with Dignity, made the argument in this paper that the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision about assisted suicide will determine who owns your life – “you or the state.”

He referenced Sue Rodriguez who suffered from ALS and pleaded for the right to have a doctor end her life. Although she lost her case in a 1993 decision of the Supreme Court, Mr. Warren argues that public opinion has changed dramatically since then.

I hope we can all agree that we have a moral obligation to dig deeper than shifting public opinion. It is not enough to reduce this issue to emotional stories or catch-phrases like “dying with dignity.”

Will legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide mean that you “own your life”? This is an example of how right-to-be-killed advocates twist the facts to appear reasonable and compassionate. But not even “Dying with Dignity” would be willing to apply this logic consistently. Nobody in this case would advocate for an unrestricted right to die. If a 12-year-old victim of bullying requests suicide, we all would agree that her family and the rest of society better be there to care for her and address the bullying, not give her a lethal injection. Even if Canada becomes the most permissive nation in the world when it comes to euthanasia, there will still be some elites, be they judges, lawyers, politicians or doctors, who get to decide who “owns their life.”

What is often ignored is that as soon as assisted suicide or euthanasia are legalized, the right to life that everyone is supposed to possess moves from objective to subjective. That means that instead of having dignity and worth simply because we are human, we now have to prove our worth to an ever-changing standard that is imposed on us. That hardly sounds dignified.

In a country where assisted suicide is legal, a 70-year-old who has been diagnosed with dementia has to explicitly or implicitly prove to those around her why she should stay alive. She has to justify her continued existence at a time when she feels most vulnerable. A right to die quickly turns into an obligation to die.

One has only to look at the places in the world where euthanasia was legalized to see evidence of this subjective standard. In the Netherlands and Belgium it took very little time for their “strict” euthanasia laws to change and now even include children and infants. Think for a moment of what it means to tell an eight-year-old that they have a right to die! A Canadian Medical Association Journal study also found that close to a third of the euthanasia deaths in one region of Belgium were done without consent.

So much for owning your own life. Euthanasia and assisted suicide doesn’t give you ownership of your life. It takes life away, sometimes even without your consent.

The answer is not to come up with better safeguards, as the right-to-die advocates suggest. It is logically impossible to come up with solid safeguards when they are subjectively determined in the first place. It will only take time for someone else to challenge them as a violation of their “right to die.”

Canadian society should focus on improving palliative care, not encouraging suicide. Thankfully we can see a consensus on this. NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for a national palliative care strategy. Almost every MP supported that motion in a vote in May. And just last week the Minister of Health Rona Ambrose also called for improvements to palliative care delivery in Canada. This is a step in the right direction. The focus is on caring, rather than killing.

As a father of four children age six and under, I admit that sometimes it is a burden for me to change diapers and wipe faces. But it is also an incredible privilege. Both my children and I are better off for it. The reality is that every single human being at some point in their life needs this kind of care. We are all born dependent and many of us will die that way, too.

The problem is not dependency. The problem is a hardening heart in our society that focuses on our autonomy and choice rather than offering love and care.

Let’s shift our focus to living with dignity.

Mark Penninga completed a master’s thesis on the topic of human dignity at the University of Lethbridge and is now the executive director of ARPA Canada (Association for Reformed Political Action) which is intervening in the current Supreme Court case on assisted suicide.

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