The right to life should not be subjective


By Mark Penninga

Editor’s note. This appeared October in the National Post, a prominent Canadian newspaper, and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

Mark Penninga

Mark Penninga

In a recent column (‘Your Call, Friend’, Oct. 15), Matt Gurney argued that it is time for the Supreme Court to allow assisted suicide. But Mr. Gurney qualified his argument by stating that, “Any regime for assisted suicide that we may implement must be biased to make choosing it difficult – not impossible, but difficult.” This limit imposed by Mr. Gurney may sound reasonable, but once this Rubicon of assisted death is crossed, any limits and safeguards imposed will be illusory or arbitrary.

As unpleasant as it can be to consider, especially while still hale and hearty, no one gets out of here alive. Some of us are lucky to die peacefully and without pain. Others aren’t quite that lucky, but manage to at least die quickly. Some of us, however, are condemned to the worst of all options: Painful and slow. It is these instances that drive the campaigns all across the Western world for some system of regulated assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that one of the cases now being considered by our Supreme Court, as well as the last major case considered by that body, concerned petitions brought by people suffering from incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS gradually destroys the body’s muscles. This leads to weakness, then to immobility. As it progresses, the ability to speak, swallow and, eventually, breathe is lost. At that point, the only available options are a slow, hopefully effectively managed death, or total mechanical life support. It is, clearly, an awful way to go, and therefore perfectly tailored for those arguing there ought to be a legal, accessible method to skip the unpleasant ending when the sufferer’s quality of life finally runs out.

I attended the Supreme Court hearing over whether to allow doctor-assisted suicide because the organization I lead, the Association for Reformed Political Action Canada, is one of the interveners in the case. Those who watched the debate in court would have heard the lawyers representing the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die explicitly argue to the judges that it is inconsistent and wrong to limit assisted suicide and euthanasia to only a select few. For them, the standard for assisted death should be whether someone is competent to understand what they are requesting or receiving.

Although I would challenge their premises and conclusions, I respect these interveners for being logically consistent and honest about what they want. In contrast, the “strict limits” argument — that we should allow, but strictly regulate, who can get physician assistance to die — as advocated by the trial judge in the B.C. Supreme Court, the lawyer for the appellants in this case and by many others, is naïve at best and deceptive at worst. What one judge or politician feels is an appropriate limit today will be challenged as unfair or quite possibly unconstitutional very soon.

For example, with the ink not yet dry on Quebec’s new euthanasia law, the secretary of Québec’s College of Physicians, Yves Robert, already contemplated legislative expansion, calling Bill 52 “only a step.”

And consider the Netherlands, which started out with strict restrictions on assisted suicide 30 years ago. Last year, a 63-year-old man opted to take his own life, with the help of the state, when faced with the prospect of life after retirement. All he had to live for was his work; he had family, but they were estranged. His request was granted.

Although this sounds like a far cry from the case that is currently being considered by the Supreme Court, the reality is that once we define the right to life subjectively, there will be no way to consistently and logically deny it to anyone who asks.

One need not be healthy or strong to be protected equally under the law. As long as you have human DNA, you qualify for protection. Euthanasia and assisted suicide violates this principle of no intentional killing. I was shocked by how little the lawyers and judges in the Supreme Court hearing discussed this. The inviolability of life, which is a foundation for all law, was brushed aside as if it was a pesky house fly that distracted the lawyers and judges for a brief moment.

If we cross the line where the right to life moves from objective to subjective, we undermine the entire foundation of human rights.

Mark Penninga is the Executive Director of the Association for Reformed Political Action Canada.