NRL News

Still right about euthanasia

by | May 8, 2015

By Ian Dowbiggin

Editor’s note. Yesterday I reprinted a review I wrote back in 2003 of Prof. Dowbiggin’s book, “A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America.” The following first appeared this week in the Canadian publication, the Prince Arthur Herald []. In this letter to the editor,  Prof. Dowbiggin brilliantly rebuts an attack on himself and other critics of physician-assisted suicide. It is reprinted with permission

mercifulendbookI applaud the Prince Arthur Herald for publishing Stuart Chambers’s attack on me and all others who oppose the legalization of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) or mercy-killing. The PAH’s commitment to open debate is admirable and should serve as a beacon to other media outlets in a day and age when it is more important than ever to speak clearly and concretely about the circumstances surrounding end-of-life care in today’s society.

Too often, the debate has been dominated by heart-rending, human-interest stories in the mainstream media about people in pain. What has been missing is plain talk and clear language.

I should know. I have spent the last fifteen years studying and publishing on the history of the euthanasia movement. That history includes the story of now-defunct organizations which paved the way for today’s Compassion and Choices, the leading North American group in favor of permitting assisted suicide. So Chambers’s attack on me is something I’m used to.

He is right about one thing: Based on my empirical studies, I have occasionally warned that, if our courts and other interest groups get their way, Canada will soon embrace the belief that some lives are not as valuable as others. Put another way: that some lives are more worthy of death than others.

One thing I have learned is that, historically speaking, the most vocal advocates of assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia would not be happy until they could get society to accept the killing of people with a wide range of disabilities, with or without their consent.

Jack Kevorkian was not alone in saying this. He was only more candid.

Now that the Canadian Supreme Court has struck down the Criminal Code ban on assisted suicide, I think most thoughtful people would agree that, regardless of their moral preferences, we have taken a big step in a fateful direction.

But not Chambers, a sociology professor at the University of Ottawa. To him, the practice of PAS is yesterday’s news. The mercy-killing of infants through lethal injection, and the hastening of deaths in other circumstances, is the new frontier.

Thus, it is all the more curious why he dismisses my “slippery slope” argument. In fact, he concedes that “it is reasonable to assume” that decriminalizing PAS will lead to the euthanasia of “terminally ill minors and incompetent patients.” That “causal premise,” he admits, “is potentially valid.”

As for the “normative” side of the slippery slope theory, he insists that “the horror stories professed by Dowbiggin” aren’t horror stories at all because they are now part of “standard medical practice.” He solemnly quotes Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith who wrote that, in Chambers’s own words, “mercy-killing” was “not a breach of medical protocol or an erosion of fundamental values.” As a community, we have moved on from “absolute moral distinctions” (as if that was what the debate about end-of-life care were all about). Presumably nothing about death and dying is off the table as we go forward.

In other words, Professor Chambers’s argument boils down to this: Dowbiggin is wrong for being right. For years, activists like Chambers have insisted that only alarmists and religious fundamentalists believed in the slippery slope thesis. Now they’re saying the thesis is true; it’s just nothing to get excited about.

I think it is appalling that an infant with spina bifada could be put to death. He doesn’t.

Actually, it is not surprising that Canadian euthanasia advocates such as Stuart Chambers want to ditch talk about a slippery slope. Note their deadening silence on what has transpired in the Netherlands and Belgium. In the Netherlands, where mercy-killing and PAS have been legal since 2002, the number of people killed doubled in the law’s first decade, and a mobile euthanasia van travels the country’s roads as a kind of death-clinic on wheels. Once a Dutch youngster turns 16 he does not need parental consent to request mercy-killing. Under the law, 42 people with dementia and 13 patients suffering from psychiatric problems were killed.

In Belgium, euthanasia represents almost 5% of all deaths. In 2013 more than 1000 deaths were hastened in Belgium without explicit request. Insiders say that almost half of all Belgian euthanasia deaths go unreported (so much for a law eliminating “boot-leg” or “back-alley” euthanasia). In 2013-2014, 50-60 psychiatric patients were killed under the nation’s law. How can the killing of a person with depression or dementia be voluntary?

So, right now, Canada is roughly where Belgium and the Netherlands were ten years ago. If Professor Chambers gets his way, Canadians will be playing catch-up over the next decade or two.

That would be more than a slippery slope. It’s more like a “slippery pole.”

Ultimately, I am heartened that Professor Chambers and I actually agree so much. I’m in a generous mood, so I’ll strike a deal with him: I’ll drop the term “slippery slope,” if he concedes that my predictive powers are pretty good when it comes to the euthanasia movement.

Then, perhaps we can continue this debate over death and dying in a productive spirit.

Ian Dowbiggin is a professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and the author of “A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America and A Concise History of Euthanasia.”

Categories: Uncategorized