The Value of Life

Commentary, Healthcare & Welfare, Gerry Bowler

I was watching a very moving piece of cinema the other day. It concerned a beautiful young woman, happily married to a successful doctor, who suddenly falls victim to a debilitating and incurable disease. She is horrified to think what will soon happen to her and tells her medical staff: “I don’t just want to lie there, for years, not being human, but only a lump of meat … Promise me that you will spare [my husband] and me.” 

Her spouse is opposed to mercy killing but, in the end, is won over by her arguments and administers a drug that brings about her death. Because this story takes place in a country without the blessings of Canadian law on medically-assisted death, the husband is charged with murder. At his trial, he defends himself by powerfully accusing the government of cruelty for not allowing his suffering wife to be put down.

This 1941 movie was entitled I Accuse! (Ich klage an!). It was the most sophisticated of a series of films produced by Nazi German propagandists to win the population over to Hitler’s policies on racial purity, policies that entailed compulsory sterilization and the killing of the mentally ill, those with incurable diseases such as tuberculosis or multiple sclerosis, and the physically handicapped. 

Starting with the Nazi accession to power in 1933, those deemed “racially unfit” were compulsorily sterilized and, after 1939, the T4 program murdered hundreds of thousands more patients of hospitals, asylums, and long-term care facilities, perfecting techniques of handling and execution that would be used in the mass extermination camps. To Hitler’s dismay, the public reacted so unfavourably to this secret campaign, when news leaked out and Catholic bishops denounced it from their pulpits, it had to be officially shut down.

But, of course, we live in more enlightened times now. 

The Canadian public seems happy with our own national euthanasia legislation, even as the courts force it to be carried out with ever-fewer safeguards. Those who defend it by saying that everything about the killing is voluntary might wish to consider a current case in BC that pits the provincial government against a hospice that objects to its patients being put to death in its facilities.

Hospices have been around for about 1,000 years ever since the Knights of St John offered care for the sick and dying on their way to the Holy Land. The idea that the incurably ill should have compassionate care in their last days blossomed again in the 19th century but the principles of the modern hospice movement were set in place by a British medical doctor Dame Cicely Saunders.  A Montreal physician, Balfour Mount, who first coined the term “palliative care,” adopted Saunders’ ideas for Canada. The core tenet is that those whose death is imminent should be able to die in as much comfort as possible, with close attention to pain management and with family access. 

The Delta Hospice Society (DHS) is a non-profit organization that operates the Irene Thomas Hospice in Ladner, BC. It has raised millions of dollars and its volunteers have given countless hours to provide care for the dying. Part of its funding comes from the government health authority which has decided that all facilities receiving over 50% of their support from them must allow their patients to be euthanized if they wish. 

DHS has stated that it is opposed to “medical assistance in dying” (MAID) and will forgo $750,000 in provincial money to avoid falling under such a mandate. Hospices, it says, are in the business of compassionate care, not hastening death — anyone wishing to be dispatched by their doctor may simply go next door to a hospital and have the job done there. Moreover, the society fears that potential patients who wished palliative care would be denied beds by those coming solely for MAID.

The provincial health authority’s reasons for enforcing euthanasia on institutions which are opposed to it are interesting. They claimed they had “received an unusually high volume of reports indicating that the Hospice’s current position on MAID is adversely affecting the well-being of staff and physicians working at the Hospice” and that refusing to allow patients to be killed on their premises may be a violation of those patients’ human rights. 

No one would wish a loved one to die in pain, so it seemed acceptable to our courts and to Parliament to allow those on death’s immediate doorstep to request a physician to end their suffering not by administering pain medication but by killing them. For activists this was not enough: under pressure of civil rights litigation, governments must now kill those who only foresee suffering in the future. 

Who believes it will stop there? Other activists have called for the death of the demented and those unable to consent but who had previously expressed a wish to be done under. Places with liberal assisted death legislation, such as Belgium, have been killing children, the depressed, mentally-ill teenagers, and prison inmates with long sentences. 

As our population ages, the pressure on the health care system will no doubt increase. We will soon see arguments that the elderly are too expensive to care for and that they are potential transplant donors. Indeed, Belgium allows organ harvesting from those they have euthanized. As courts, governments, and health authorities continue to trivialize death and as they continue to consider “quality of life” as being more important than life itself, it will soon become socially acceptable for the old and the helpless to see themselves as more valuable dead to their families and society. Shortly thereafter, it will be a social stigma for aged or hospitalized folks to not request death.

The NDP government of BC should not be bullying volunteer organizations into permitting those they care for to be killed. We have reached a sorry state in our history when policies that the citizens of Nazi Germany forced Hitler to abandon are now on Canada’s horizon.

 

 

Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.