President of Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C. calls assisted-suicide law change proposal naive
By Alistair Burns
The B.C. Catholic
Two heavyweights battled it out in a debate over physician-assisted suicide April 19. Dr. Williard Johnston, president of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C., faced off against Wanda Morris, executive director of Dying With Dignity, at SFU's Harbour Centre campus.
They debated the question, "Should physician-assisted suicide be legalized in Canada?" with Morris taking the affirmative. A lively crowd of 80 spectators ranged from students to seniors.
Morris, a chartered accountant, began with an emotional plea, outlining cases that explained her group's goal. "Poisoning a father, that's not what we stand for." With tears in her eyes she passionately continued into her first major argument: the Sue Rodriguez case.
Rodriguez suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS); she challenged Section 241 of the Criminal Code, that prohibited physicians from assisting suicides.
The case wound up before the Supreme Court in 1993. In a 5-4 decision, the Rodriguez motion was dismissed on grounds that the prohibition did not contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
To Morris, the fundamental difference between being killed and dying is choice. "Why is the choice taken away from us?"
Dr. Johnston, a family physician, agreed his opponent argued from the point of view of compassion. He agreed people should die with dignity and jokingly added, "You can all go home now," which elicited good-natured laughter from the crowd.
However, he deftly clarified, "Our goals are different, physician-assisted suicide is not the solution."
As a medical professional, he admitted his skepticism: "Why give doctors even more power than they already have? Over half of [Belgian] euthanasia cases were not reported. Out of 6,000 cases, a third were reported without evidence that the patient wanted to die. A change in the law is naive."
Dr. Johnston pointed out, "If you're young, good-looking, and healthy, you receive suicide prevention; if you're older, you get people telling you to die."
In closing, the doctor poked at the rationale behind the language game played by the pro-death movement. "The word 'suicide' isn't liked by my opponent. Why is that? If a person changes the language, you have to wonder why."
After a short recess, the rebuttal phase began with Morris. She also argued doctors should not have more power. Instead Morris affirmed she wanted a system similar to Oregon's.
In Oregon, she noted, there is a complicated system of checks and balances. One has to be a competent adult and must orally notify a doctor of his intention. After a 15-day waiting period, two doctors are consulted; there must be a written request and another oral request.
She brought up a Canadian example as well; Quebec's legislative assembly has said it is in favour of euthanasia.
Morris concluded her rebuttal by restating her group's intentions, "We're for voluntary euthanasia, not involuntary; that's murder."
Dr. Johnston reminded spectators, "Medically assisted dying is what I do already." He was referring not to assisting their suicide, but giving medical assistance for their condition and their pain. My opponent, he said, "is re-engineering the words because she doesn't like the word 'suicide.'"
Afterwards, a questioner accused Johnston of not caring about the elderly and the doctor politely disagreed, reminding everyone a change in the law affected everyone.
"Dignity has been reduced to mean social embarrassment. That's wrong." He said it's only "a very low number" of ALS sufferers who die of painful secretions.
Later Morris exploded in anger at a pharmacist who suggested a parallel existed between "humane" assisted suicide and the "humane" tactics Nazi Germany employed: i.e., murder by poison gas instead of other execution methods.
The Nazis were leading advocates of euthanizing severely wounded soldiers during the Second World War.
Johnston concluded, "Over the past 2,000 years, you could be reasonably sure that your doctor wasn't going to walk in and kill you." A change in the law will "fundamentally taint the doctor-patient relationship."