Canadian executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Alex Schadenberg, was recently brought out to Australia by Endeavour Forum, Inc., for a speaking tour. Paul Russell, who is campaign director of HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide – an initiative of the Australian Family Association – interviewed him.
PR: In April this year, the Canadian Parliament defeated the latest attempt to legalise euthanasia by MP Francine Lalonde by a staggering margin of 228 votes to 59. I’ve always been under the impression that Canadian legislators were, in the main, leftist or libertarian. How then do you explain such an overwhelming vote against euthanasia, particularly considering that this was Lalonde’s third attempt?
AS: One of the reasons was that this was Lalonde’s third attempt! Members of parliament who had been there a while had had a long time to learn about euthanasia and assisted suicide, and the more they got to know about it, the more uncomfortable they became with it. So as time went along, even in this debate – she had presented this latest bill in May of 2009 and it was voted on in April 2010, so there was almost a year of the campaign – over that period of time there were quite a few MPs who moved over to our side.
A lot of that had to do with the fact that they came to grips with the fact that the issue of euthanasia touches many other issues – for instance, the disability community. The disability community were visiting MPs and talking about how their life experience was, and that really affected the debate in a serious manner.
Further to that, we were able to do a lot more serious research and present it to them. I think, once MPs really got to know the issue, they got uncomfortable with it. Early on many MPs wrote letters to us saying they were in favour, but after meeting with us and meeting with myself – and I met a lot of MPs – they changed their positions.
PR: A good result?
AS: It was an incredible result! Consider how socially liberal Canada actually is, and that euthanasia/
assisted suicide is generally regarded as a socially liberal issue. Yet in the most socialist-type party in Canada, the New Democratic Party (NDP), 30 of its 39 sitting members voted against it.
That came about because they remembered that they’re all about favouring proper care, good medical care and they’re all in favour of a proper safety net in Canada. When they came to analyse the issue, they said to themselves, “Well, wait a second. We in Canada have got a lot of holes in our safety net, in our palliative care and with a lack of effective palliative care for Canadians in place. How could we even consider legislating euthanasia or assisted suicide?” And that’s what moved them over – when they realised that this wasn’t safe and there wasn’t really a choice for many people.
PR: You’ve just come from Western Australia, where a euthanasia bill has recently been defeated, to South Australia where three euthanasia bills have been tabled this year. Federally, Australia’s Greens party leader, Senator Bob Brown, has introduced his second attempt to repeal the 1996 Euthanasia Laws Act that stopped the operation of euthanasia in the Northern Territory.
It would be helpful for likeminded Australians to gain an insight into the creation of your Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) in Canada, its history and modus operandi. Basically, how did you do it?
AS: Well the EPC is about bringing people together with really diverse views. There are many different people who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide for many different reasons, and the only way we can work really effectively together is to focus solely on euthanasia and assisted suicide.
So, for instance, the disability movement in Canada are very close allies with us and the reason is that we agree on this issue and we work together on this issue and everything is perfect that way.
We have many palliative care professionals who are involved with the EPC, and many of them might not agree with me on different issues. But it doesn’t matter, because this is what we’re doing. So, we came together recognising that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter how you’re coming to this position – we’re going to work together – and that was very important.
Right now, we work very closely with the elder abuse alliance because, when you start understanding what elder abuse is and the social issues around elder abuse, you realise that it’s very under-reported. It’s usually within family settings, and these people often feel pressured.
They live a life where they fear that if they report abuse – particularly if, say, it is their son who is the abuser – they figure, “If I go and report this, it’s only going to get worse for me.” And if you consider the issues further about how we look at issues around end-of-life care, euthanasia and assisted suicide, it’s very clear that the elder abuse alliance fits in with the EPC.
PR: The media hubbub surrounding euthanasia and the rhetoric of euthanasia supporters, it seems to me, is characterised by the use of fear through the presentation of unrealistic scenarios, half-truths and the mantra of personal autonomy and “choice”. We know that there’s plenty of evidence from across the globe that once the genie of euthanasia and assisted suicide is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to control. But I guess the reality that truth is the first casualty in war makes it difficult to get the message out. What strategies would best help anti-euthanasia organisations to cut through? And What messages really work?
AS: The issue of choice is the first thing. The euthanasia lobby wants you to think that this is really about choice. They’ll say: “You know; if you don’t want euthanasia, we’re not going to force it on you. But I want euthanasia – or, at least, I want it to be an option for me. If you don’t want it, that’s fine, but I’m all for the choice.”
But when we’re talking about euthanasia and assisted suicide, we’re not actually talking about choice. Choice is really an illusion. What does this mean? Well, if you look at what it would mean to legalise euthanasia in a British common law type setting, which Canada and Australia share, what they would be doing is amending the criminal code to allow an exception for homicide to allow for euthanasia, so they’d define the exceptions for homicide.
And how will they define it? They’ll define it that a physician would be allowed to directly and intentionally cause your death under such-and-such circumstances. So, in fact, what the law is doing is not about choice; it’s giving the physician the right to be directly and intentionally involved in causing your death.
They say, “Oh, but it’s about my body – my choice. I want my choice.” Well, no, actually. You’ve just amended the law that now gives the physician the choice to be involved. They say, “Yes, but I’ve requested it.”
Well, let’s look at such requests. I’ve been involved in this since 1999. Belgium legalised euthanasia in 2002, and it came into effect in 2003. The Belgian people had already heard all the statistics from the Netherlands, because it had been going on in that country prior to its official legalisation, and Belgians knew that there had been quite a few people who were dying without request or consent.
The Belgian people were saying, “Well, that’s not going to happen in Belgium.” That’s what they were saying right through their campaign. They were saying, “Oh, we heard there are problems in the Netherlands – we won’t do that here.”
A recent study just came out on May 17 this year in the highly respected Canadian Medical Association Journal. That study looked at euthanasia in Belgium and it concluded that 32 per cent of euthanasia in the Flemish region of Belgium is without request or consent. That’s significant. That’s huge.
And in this country they say, “You know, that wouldn’t happen in Australia.” Well, that’s what the Belgium people said too. That study came out after we had already defeated the bill in Canada. So it’s not like we defeated our bill because this study came out.
Let’s really look at this further. Who makes the decision? You might request it – that’s true. There are issues about whether you’ve been subtly influenced – you might not really want it, but you might feel as if you’re a burden on your family, and on your friends. You might feel all those things, but, nevertheless, you might request it – that’s true. But who actually makes the decision? Who makes the choice? If you look at Oregon, Washington State, the Netherlands or Belgium – it’s the physician who makes the choice. It’s not about your choice. Choice is an illusion. We need to be very clear about that.
PR: One powerful weapon of the euthanasia lobby is the opinion polls showing that something like 80 per cent of Australians supposedly support voluntary euthanasia. How do you counter this argument?
AS: There are two issues with polling: information in and information out. In polling, a lot of people don’t truly understand what we’re talking about with euthanasia. When you actually question people, a lot say, “Well, actually, I’m in favour of pulling the plug”; but pulling the plug is not actually euthanasia. Euthanasia is directly and intentionally causing someone’s death; that’s what it’s about – it’s usually done by lethal injection.
But, further to that, we’ve done a lot of polling and our polling would show similar numbers – but it’s based on a lot of fear. They might have seen an uncle or an aunt or somebody they knew die who was not properly cared for. Maybe they were in a lot of pain, and nobody wants to see that or experience that. So we understand that.
Nonetheless, we’ve done polling that asks a set of further questions: are you concerned about disability issues? Do you think that somebody with a disability might be subtly pressured? Issues around elder abuse, concerns about the nursing home care we have. Then we asked them about end-of-life care and palliative care. And finally we asked them: “Do you think Canada should improve end-of-life care or do you think it should legalise euthanasia?”
Well, 69 per cent said: “Canada needs to improve end-of-life care.” So what are Canadians actually saying?
An over-50 group in Canada, CARP (Canadian Association of Retired Persons) recently did a study, and all the newspapers put it all over the place that “retired persons in Canada support euthanasia”.
So I went to the website and I contacted the people and found that the questionnaire had more to it than was reported by the media. This confirmed exactly what I’ve said and what our studies have shown. CARP is actually concerned about the improvement that is needed for end-of-life care. And I’m assuming that it would be the same thing in Australia.
One final thing: in typical political polling you ask people: name your three primary issues – what should we do? People talk about the economy, etc. – and euthanasia does not even show up!
People in Canada – and I’m sure it’s the same across Australia – are not even concerned about the legalisation of euthanasia. When the odd poll asks them about it, they’re going to respond – usually out of fear. But people are not demanding the legalisation of euthanasia. What’s happening is there are a few of the elite, and I’m talking about upper-middle-class people – they are demanding it. It’s not the general population.
PR: There’s surely an “elephant in the room” here, relating to our ageing population and the corresponding rapidly increasing health budget. We know that overseas palliative care budgets are under threat and less humane options are being explored. What do you say to those who fear the spectre of diminished health care options and consider they could be future candidates for euthanasia once they become a burden to their families and to the system?
AS: When you mix health-care cost containment and euthanasia, you have a very stinky brew. Canada has a universal health care system and Australia has a slightly different system, but they’re comparable. And in a universal healthcare system we’re allotting funding for everything. We spend a lot of money on health care. The question is how we prioritise our spending.
People would say that we can’t keep spending more and more on palliative care when we already spend so much on health care. But wait a second. Isn’t the priority in an ageing population caring for people who need that care? Are some of the things we’re spending money on today in Canada or Australia maybe less of a priority because other things are a greater priority? Do we have to review our healthcare? Of course.
But if it comes down to the accountant deciding whether or not there’s going to be euthanasia or assisted suicide and whether you’re going to live or die – are you then going to call that a choice? Once again, choice is just an illusion. What we’re talking about is who makes the decision and about the subtle pressure that is put on people.
Here’s the reality: people who are looking at the option of euthanasia and assisted suicide are going through a very difficult time in their life. They’re in a very stressful, emotionally-charged situation. And now you’re throwing in: “Oh, now euthanasia is an option. We have healthcare demands that are just so out of whack – would you like euthanasia?” And then we add, “Oh, it’s a free choice.” It’s not! It’s not about choice. It’s about eliminating the lives of people who lack a certain level of health or quality of life – that’s what it comes down to in the end.
PR: What’s your final message to Australians concerning euthanasia and assisted suicide?
AS: Australians really need to look at this issue and how it affects the most vulnerable people in our society. People say: “Oh, really. This wouldn’t affect people; we wouldn’t go that way.” Yet in other jurisdictions it has gone in a direction where many vulnerable people have lost their lives with or without consent. “Without consent” is becoming far more common.
Further to that, we have to really examine where society is at. Yes, there is an ageing population. Yes, we have a lot of concerns about how we care for people. But at the same time we have to look at what we prioritise and what we make important for our society and, in an ageing society, we have to talk about how we’re caring for people. The fact is it can’t be a secondary priority in our society.
Further to that, what about elder abuse? In Canada and most of the Western world we’re becoming really aware of the problem, and with an ageing population we’re seeing this huge growth of people who have been significantly abused by family members, friends or loved ones.
We’re not just talking about financial abuse; we’re hearing more and more about how physical abuse is becoming common – abandonment, people abusing the other, and we’ve also heard about homicide cases.
The sad reality is you can’t say euthanasia is going to be separate from elder abuse when you consider the course of nature that these people are experiencing. Elder abuse is so under-reported – they’re talking about only 10 per cent of all elder abuse cases being reported. Why is this? This is because it’s happening in a closed family or friend setting where the pressure is very difficult where people say: “I must have done something wrong; it must be about me.”
So the fact is euthanasia and assisted suicide directly affect the most vulnerable in society.
Let’s talk about disability. People with disabilities are more vulnerable – not because of any other reason than the attitudes that already exist in society towards disabilities. People are uncomfortable around people with disabilities. I have a son who is autistic. And I know first-hand that people are very uncomfortable with someone who is very different or acts very differently.
Well, what about friends of mine who live permanently with visible multiple disabilities? Society is uncomfortable with that. And being uncomfortable with that, you’ll find that you’ll be treated differently. The disabilities movement in Canada are our closest ally, and the reason for that is that they understand that, not so long ago, they were put into institutions – that’s quite recent history.
It is not a big jump to see how subtle pressure can be brought to bear on a person who is going through a difficult time in their life. Somebody will say, “Well, maybe your life would be better off ended.” They don’t even have to say that directly; I always talk about subtle pressure because we as human beings, we understand when we’re not really wanted. We get it. And that’s what will happen.
News Weekly readers are invited to join the Australian Family Association’s campaign against euthanasia. Website: www.noeuthanasia.org.au