Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics, and Law, recently testified at the Quebec National Assembly hearings. She sat down with the Tribune to share some of her thoughts on euthanasia.
Why have you taken such an active role against euthanasia?
It is the single most important issue that we ever face because it affects everybody. Although there are many other important issues, we are never going to design every child. We aren’t going to use reproductive technology for everybody. If you institute euthanasia, everybody could be subject to it. In a way, even if you aren’t affected by euthanasia, it goes to the most fundamental of our societal values [the] respect for every human life. If we institutionalize euthanasia, we cross that Rubicon. We change that norm.
The House of Lords in England say the foundation stone of this civilized society is that we don’t kill each other. Even if you don’t think euthanasia is wrong, it does more harm than good for our society. And what you hope to achieve for a person by euthanasia you can do by good palliative care and if nothing else is possible, palliative sedation. You give them sedatives so they don’t feel the situation, given that they give you their permission and that there is no other way to stop their suffering.
What is the distinction between euthanasia and allowing someone to die naturally?
Pulling the plug is not euthanasia. In pulling the plug you have treatment that is not effective to maintain the person because they’re dying, and what you’re doing, some say, is prolonging their dying, not prolonging their living. And what we do is care for them, but if they say, “No, enough is enough,” everyone in Canada has the right to refuse treatment. There is no obligation to receive treatment.
There is a great deal of confusion—not just with the public. Even the doctors are confused. I’ve asked doctors “Have you administered euthanasia?” and some of the doctors [say] yes. When you ask them to tell you what they did, it turns out they didn’t do euthanasia. When you find out they’re doing things like giving adequate pain relief treatment, it’s not euthanasia. We’ve been trying really hard to get doctors to give adequate pain relief treatment because one of the main reasons people get euthanasia is because they just can’t cope with the pain. The latest research shows that proper pain relief actually prolongs your life. Which makes sense, since not all your psychological resources are being used to cope with the pain.
What would be the implications of legalizing euthanasia in Canada?
What we have to ask is: “What do we have to do to hold our values on trust for future generations?” Even if we wouldn’t misuse this now in rare cases where there really isn’t something else we can do, what is likely to happen in the future is really frightening. The evidence we’ve got of that is the Netherlands. They went from saying “It’s rare. It’s only going to be eligible adults in chronic pain. They’ve got to be terminally ill, and they have to repeatedly say they want to do it, and they have to give their full consent.” Now, not one of those conditions apply. They just put a petition in parliament that says if you’re over 70 and you’re tired of life, you can have euthanasia. The courts hold that if a psychiatrist killed a 55-year-old woman because she said she’s depressed, that’s justified euthanasia.
What we’ve lost is any sense of the mystery of life. We’ve gone to a total scientism—that we’re just a bunch of functioning molecules, a sort of “Genes ‘R Us.” Once the machine has stopped working, as one Australian politician said, “When you’ve passed your ‘best before’ or ‘used by’ date, you should be chucked out as quickly, cleanly and efficiently as possible.”
If we lose the sense that death is a big deal, we’re likely to lose the sense that life is a big deal, and if we lose the sense that life is a big deal, we’ve lost everything. We lose our ability to find meaning. We lose our ability to find awe, allure, and mystery. We won’t just dehumanize ourselves; we’ll encourage suicide by making it a norm. The people who want euthanasia have a condition that psychiatrists call hopelessness. They think that there’s absolutely nothing to look forward to, that there is no joy or anything good in life.