Death Without Dignity

Source: The American Conservative

In the dystopian film Soylent Green, Edward G. Robinson’s character, Sol Roth, has lost the will to live. He presents himself at a euthanasia clinic, a bleak, brutalist building in the heart of the abandoned downtown. Sol is taken by two toga-clad officials into a futuristic chamber, disrobed, laid on a padded bier, and draped in a white cloth. The officials give him poison in a cup and depart after he drinks it. Immediately, a wraparound screen embedded in the chamber walls begins to play scenes from nature—deer running, birds chirping, grain flowing—set to Edvard Grieg’s “Aase’s Death” and Mozart’s “Pastoral.” It is a chilling scene that forces viewers to wrestle with the indignity of even the most apparently “dignified” of suicides.

To our north, reality increasingly resembles science fiction. This month the AP reported on several Canadians who were either euthanized or pressured to consider euthanasia under Canada’s recently liberalized assisted suicide law. One man with a degenerative brain disorder was reportedly told it would cost “north of $1,500 a day” to keep him hospitalized and was asked if he “had an interest in assisted dying.” Another, a suicidal mental patient, requested and was granted aid in dying, supposedly for a “hearing condition.” A third, a 41-year-old with ALS, was euthanized after he failed to raise enough money for medical equipment that would help him stay at home with his son. Each case is representative of the fruits of Canada’s “death with dignity” campaign.

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Last year, more than 10,000 people died by euthanasia in Canada, which accounts for more than 3 percent of the total deaths recorded nationally in 2021. Of the 10,000 Canadians who killed themselves with the help of a medical professional, 219 did not have a terminal diagnosis.

The right to kill yourself in Canada was discovered by liberal jurists in 2016. In 2014, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association alleged that the national ban on euthanasia violated the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian supreme court agreed, and in 2016 struck down a national law that deemed assisted suicide a form of homicide.

The court gave parliament one year to enact enabling legislation. Its initial law required patients to have a terminal illness to qualify, but a provincial court struck down that requirement in 2019 after another activist lawsuit. The national and provincial governments declined to appeal the ruling, prompting parliament to pass Bill C-7, making any adult with a serious illness or disability with the capacity to make informed decisions eligible for voluntary lethal injection. It also established an “expert review panel” to study whether mental patients and “mature minors” should be made eligible for assisted suicide in the future.

In the years since euthanasia was legalized, the number of Canadians taking lethal injections has increased almost fourfold. In 2017, the first full year that the practice was legal at the national level, 2,838 Canadians were euthanized. By 2020, that figure had more than doubled.

It would be wrong to say Canada is sliding down a slippery slope. Canadian leaders view euthanasia as a positive good. They see it as an extension of the country’s progressive national character. Health minister Jean-Yves Duclos said that Canada’s assisted suicide regime “recognizes the rights of all persons” and “the inherent and equal value of every life.” One of the country’s two major parties claims Canadians have “the right to decide when their life ends and when their suffering ends.”

They don’t have that right, though. In the final analysis, our bodies are not our own. What separates men from animals is the soul, and our ability to process and endure suffering as sentient creatures. There is no question that some people experience tremendous physical and emotional suffering at the end of their lives. There is no question that many lose their sense of dignity. But that is not an argument for legalizing euthanasia, and in fact strengthens the force of the argument against it. If the measure of a society is what it does for its weakest members, what can be said of a country that encourages the terminally ill to kill themselves?

Euthanasia is not bad only because of the potential slippery slope, and the possibility that children of a first-world country will be considered potential candidates for assisted suicide. It is not bad only because it coerces the elderly, disabled, and terminally ill to die to minimize the financial and emotional burdens they pose to their families. It is not bad only because it suggests that life with a grave disability is worse than death. It is bad primarily because it allows people, even people capable of “informed consent,” to kill themselves.

One of the most commonly cited reasons among those in Canada who elect for assisted suicide is the inability to engage in meaningful activities. Others cite the loss of independence. A significant number said they felt they had lost their dignity. Canada’s mass euthanasia campaign suggests that the state agrees.