Post-Sacred Society: Euthanasia Debate in Canada

Article excerpt

ANGEL OF DARKNESS or angel of light? The name Jack Kevorkian evokes a variety of responses from people across the United States. At one end of the spectrum, the name signals revulsion and fear. Some, including handicapped people, feel that assisted suicide will lead to the elimination of those whom society finds too cumbersome to accommodate. On the other end are those who see assisted suicide as a light at the end of a tunnel of terrible suffering, a dignified end to a life of tubes and pain, semiconsciousness and fear.

Between these two poles there are probahly as manv opinions as there are people. We all face an unknown future; none of us are immune to suffering. Among us are people who care deeply about life and believe in the value of the gift, but are at the same time perplexecl by the conditions under which some endure this life. Although Kevorkian already faces possible prosecution for murder in his right-to-death campaign, in June he was present at another suicide, the 24th. "Present" implies that as a medical doctor he has in some way facilitated a terminal patient's passage from this life. In May John Evans died in Kevorkian's company. He was a retired Unitarian minister and longtime peace activist who wrote that he had once considered carrying out his suicide inside a church because "the finality of this act has a religious quality."

The U.S. is not the only country in which citizens have contended with this question. A number of wrenching situations have placed the issue of life and death on the front page of the Canadian conscience. Indeed, a senate committee has struggled with the question of euthanasia, assisted suicide and related matters in recent months. The committee has requested deadline extensions, an indication of its difficulty in reaching a consen sus .

Recently, Canadians have been struggling with the emotional and controversial issue of mercy killing in the case of Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer who ended the life of his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy. A jury of six women and five men found Latimer guilty of second-degree murder; he was sentenced to the minimum sentence---life imprisonment without eligibility for parole for ten years.

Tracy was declared clinically dead when she was born and had to be resuscitated. Her mother said, "We grieved for her when she was born." A severe form of cerebral palsy affected her entire body. At 12 she had the mind of a three-month-old baby; she could not walk or talk, but only smile, laugh or cry. She weighed only 38 pounds and experienced frequent seizures. In her last few months she suffered extreme pain from a dislocated hip, and was scheduled to have it removed.

Her parents, who live on a farm near Wilkie. Saskatchewan, had cared for her ever since her birth except for a few months when her mother went through a difficult pregnancy. Although the Latimer household includes three other children, life revolved around Tracy. "Her father rocked her on his knees for hours and hours," said Mrs. Latimer in defense of her husband. After his conviction Robert Latimer told the court, "I still feel I did what is right. I don't think you people [the jury] are being human."

Although at first he reported Tracy's death as a natural occurrence, Latimer soon told the police the full story. He had put the child in the cab of his pick-up and driven her out into the country. He had carefully constructed a tube that transferred carbon monoxide from the exhaust system into the cab. Tracy died very peacefully. "If she had cried I would have removed her," Latimer told the court.

The trial attracted national media attention. It was the first case of mercv killing involving a parent and child to be handled by Canadian courts. It came at a time when euthanasia is very much under discussion. In 1994, Sue Rodriguez, a terminally ill woman in Victoria, British Columbia, committed a doctor-assisted suicide after the Supreme Court of Canada refused to allow her to end her life legally. …