Was Robert Latimer justified in killing his severely disabled daughter, Tracy, in order to end her suffering?
Twelve-year-old Tracy had cerebral palsy which left her unable to walk, talk or feed herself. She had endured a number of operations in her life.
Some Canadians say Mr. Latimer acted with the best of intentions and ought not to be treated like a murderer. Others, notably representatives for people with disabilities, say allowing Mr. Latimer to serve a shorter sentence than other killers would lead to open season on people who are less than perfect.
The Latimer case is one of the real-life situations raised in a study guide, Care in Dying: A Consideration of the Practices of Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide, newly released by the Anglican Church of Canada for reflection and comment.
A task group of the church's Faith, Worship and Ministry Committee prepared the study guide for use by Anglicans in response to a General Synod request in 1998. The group had presented a draft statement that opposed legalizing euthanasia and synod members felt it deserved wider comment.
The committee is hoping for feedback before the next General Synod in 2001.
While Mr. Latimer's appeal remains before the courts, the church's ethics consultant, Rev. Eric Beresford, is convinced Mr. Latimer should not have unilaterally taken the decision he did.
"He was too close to his own pain and the damage inflicted on his family to be the only person who could decide," said Canon Beresford, editor of Care in Dying.
The Latimer case "points to the duplicity of our own motives."
"We're not really always transparent to ourselves. We may convince ourselves we are doing firings for good motives," because we can't face up to the facts our motives may be mixed.
"That's part of the human condition. It's not unique to Robert Latimer. Therefore the laws need to recognize this conflict of interest."
A conflict of interest is also what makes this a particularly bad time in the history of Canadian health care to be considering a move to legalize euthanasia, Canon Beresford said, noting there is already enormous pressure on the medical system to move people out of hospital as quickly as possible, for example.
"When conflicting interests are at work, that's when things tend to go wrong," he said.
The task group has issued a pastoral guideline on euthanasia rather than a policy statement, partly to recognize that Anglicans hold widely diverging views.
"It allows the church to take a position without placing an intolerable burden on those faithful Anglicans who don't agree," Canon Beresford said. "One's view on euthanasia isn't what makes you an Anglican or not an Anglican."
That's not to say the group doesn't take a clear stand: it comes out squarely against legalizing euthanasia, for both practical and theological reasons.
The guide notes the experience in the Netherlands, where doctors may assist in killing a terminally ill patient who is experiencing unbearable pain and suffering after a process of counselling and consultation that must involve at least one other physician.
But research shows Dutch physicians have often failed to complete the reports required in cases of euthanasia, sometimes issuing death certificates claiming death was from "natural causes." Studies have also found a slide from voluntary into non-voluntary euthanasia.
The guide also notes the "long tradition in Christian theology that allows for the removal of therapies that are useless or unduly burdensome, on the grounds that these therapies serve to prolong the process of dying rather than to save life. …