Anti-euthanasia activist speaks in Columbus
April 18, 2019
Individuals being denied life-saving treatments – but steered toward physician-assisted suicide. Physicians pressured to kill their own patients. Parents seeking the death of their own children.
Could these and other threats to human dignity be coming to Nebraska?
Anti-euthanasia activist Alex Schadenberg, (at left) executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC), discussed these dangers March 19 in Columbus.
Schadenberg, from Ontario, Canada, founded EPC in 1999. He speaks on the subject throughout the world and is the author of a book – “Exposing Vulnerable People to Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide” – and numerous articles published in newspapers worldwide.
A broad-based organization of more than 4,700 groups and individuals opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, EPC provides information, research and support for palliative care as an alternative to euthanasia.
Schadenberg spoke recently with the Catholic Voice about the growing list of countries and states that have legalized euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, abuses that are occurring and what this could mean for people in our state:
Q: "Euthanasia" and "physician-assisted suicide" seem to be used interchangeably. Is there a moral and/or legal distinction between these terms?
In the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada they’ve legalized euthanasia, whereas in the U.S., it’s assisted suicide. Euthanasia is an act I do to you, so in the case of euthanasia I would give you a lethal injection, so it’s a direct act. To legalize euthanasia, such as happened in Canada, they have to create an exception to homicide, murder, in the criminal code, which is exactly what they did in Canada and the Netherlands. It’s a very serious concept then to consider that when you legalize euthanasia, you’re actually giving the physician, or somebody else, the right in law to kill you according to the homicide or murder act.
In the case of assisted suicide, a physician or somebody else usually would prescribe the lethal drugs to the person, knowing that they’re going to use it to cause their own death, so it’s an assisting of a suicide. Although the drugs are very much the same, the difference is who does the act. In the case of euthanasia, it is done to you, in the case of assisted suicide it is someone helping you cause your own death.
Q: Since Canada legalized euthanasia in 2016, what particular trends are you seeing in your country?
Well, in fact, it’s been exploding in Canada. This is a very sad, sad situation because it was sold to Canadians under the idea that it would be very tight and controlled. The law wasn’t written that way, but that’s how it was sold to Canadians – that there would be no expansion of the law, that this would be done in such a way to have it only for very few people. And in the very first year of legalized euthanasia there were 1,982 deaths, 1,977 were actually euthanasia, five were assisted suicide, meaning 1,977 died by lethal injection, five by receiving lethal drugs and taking them themselves.
But the immediate effect was the pressure on physicians to be involved in the act, and also the pressure to expand euthanasia. Right off the bat there was a court case, only a couple weeks after the legalization, to expand euthanasia to people who have no terminal condition whatsoever. Now, that case is being heard. There’s been a lot of pressure on physicians. The original pressure was when they were trying to legalize euthanasia they were saying, “Oh, this would only be in a few cases, this would be tightly controlled.” The opposite now occurs. Now the pressure is, “Why did you not euthanize that person? Why did you not do it?” Rather than, “Why did you do it?”
Right now the Canadian government is debating the question of euthanasia for children, for newborns. They’re debating the question of euthanasia for people who are incompetent, if they had wanted it previous to being incompetent, for people who are going through psychiatric conditions. The whole pressure is to promote, and to legalize, and expand euthanasia in Canada, and it’s happening very quickly.
Q: With six states plus the District of Columbia here in the United States legalizing physician-assisted suicide in recent decades, how has the practice grown? And has it led to abuses?
In the U.S., the practice has grown in numbers every single year. In the case of Oregon and Washington State where it’s been legal for around 20 years now, every year you’ve seen an increase in assisted suicide deaths, and so you have this greater acceptance of the concept. The other thing is the definition of the law. They have not changed, but the understanding of what it means has changed, so therefore, more and more people and more and more health conditions are being considered acceptable for assisted suicide in Oregon.
In the U.S., you do have abuse of the law. For instance, in Oregon and Washington State, the law says that the doctor has to assess somebody if there’s any fear or concern that there might be depression or mental illness going on that has led to their requesting assisted suicide. And you see that in the report every year. There’s almost nobody who’s being sent for psychiatric or psychological assessment even though the studies of people who ask for assisted suicide show that at least one in four people who ask for it are going through severe depression or have these feelings of hopelessness associated with depressive conditions. So in fact, you’re not seeing a protection of people who are depressed, you’re seeing assisted suicide for people who are depressed.
In a recent study into the Oregon assisted suicide law, there was a man named Fabian Stahle, who lives in Sweden, and Sweden is debating the legalization of Oregon-style assisted suicide. So he contacted the Oregon Health Authority, and asked them about their interpretation of “terminal” in Oregon. He found out that they don’t interpret terminal in the way that you and I would interpret it. Normally, terminal would be interpreted to mean that I actually am within six months of death. But the Oregon Health Authority doesn’t define it that way, they look at it as if I were to refuse medical treatment, would I be within six months of death? What that means is somebody who was insulin dependent does qualify for assisted suicide in Oregon.
Q: Do you see the health care and health insurance industries becoming involved in morally questionable end-of-life decision making?
Well, we see that in the U.S. In Canada we have what you call universal health care. It’s interesting, euthanasia was legalized in Canada in June of 2016, and in December of 2016 the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an article showing how legalizing euthanasia was likely to save $138 million in our health care budget. So obviously that creates significant pressure for medical caregivers who are trying to hold on to their budgets and institutions. In the U.S. you’ve seen several situations of health insurance industry companies pressuring people to accept assisted suicide. Or certainly where someone needed life-sustaining medical treatment, and that treatment was being questioned, but assisted suicide was certainly being offered.
We had a couple cases in Oregon like that, and recently in California, because California legalized assisted suicide only about a year ago. There was a case in California of a woman who needed life-sustaining treatment and was turned down for that, but was told assisted suicide would be available to her. Obviously there’s a fair amount of pressure. No one likes to talk about it that way, about money and causing death. But clearly there is a connection.
Q: What cultural factors have led to this proliferation of euthanasia and physician- assisted suicide laws?
I think the culture has shifted in a serious way, which has led to the promotion of euthanasia and assisted suicide. In the 1970s, when we could do a lot less for people who were suffering, you would think that at that time, when suffering was a much greater problem in the health care institutions to properly care for people, that there would be this great demand for euthanasia and assisted suicide, and in fact there wasn’t. There actually isn’t a massive demand for it now either. It’s more from the perspective of people who are philosophers and bioethicists, who are pressuring the culture to accept this. But what’s happened is that the family life, our interconnectedness in our culture has changed. There was a time not so long ago in our culture when the concept of somebody suffering alone was seen as a great problem, and others were heavily involved with being with others.
Cicely Saunders, who was the founder of modern palliative care, started the first hospice in the UK in 1967. The whole idea was to care for someone’s physical symptoms, but also to make sure that no one journeys alone, no one goes through the dying process, or lives with these difficult symptoms and is alone and lonely, that everyone has support. I think this is what we’re missing in the culture. There’s far too many people who are alone and lonely, and who are dying. In that, death becomes very difficult.
I’m going to go one step further though, and the other part of the changing culture is that we greatly fear dying, so much so that we would rather be dead than go through painful conditions. We fear it. I think one of the reasons we fear it is because of the disconnection between actually being with someone who is nearing death, and our own personal life experience. We have insulated ourselves from the dying person, so we fear the process of dying. We’ve become almost obsessed with our fear of dying a bad death, and in fact, most people with proper care have not a bad death at all. On top of it, if you care for someone, and you are with them, that death experience can be very good. It’s a closure, it allows us to have a finality in our life as we see that death come upon them.
Q: Do all these trends, in your mind, point to a growing utilitarian attitude that some lives are more valuable than others? And if so, how?
Clearly yes. Clearly what’s happening is that there is an attitude that some lives are not worth living. So right now, in Canada, this whole debate on pediatric euthanasia is really upsetting in a sense if you start reading what they’re actually suggesting. They’re suggesting that there should be euthanasia extended to children and newborns.
Why would they want pediatric or newborn euthanasia? The reason is quite clear, that sometimes a child’s born with significant disabilities, and the parents do not want to have that child, they don’t want to keep that child, they don’t want that child to survive, and so they ask for euthanasia. Euthanasia therefore eliminates children with disabilities. This is a very eugenic concept, or as you could say, utilitarian. The value of the life of that person is seen as secondary.
Q: Physician-assisted suicide legislation has been proposed in Nebraska and other states recently. What leads people to back such legislative efforts? And what arguments can help counteract their acceptance of that practice?
Well, first of all, the difficulty is that when we debate these laws, we tend to talk about these things in theory rather than in reality. The reality of these laws is they’re designed to protect a physician who’s willing to cause your death, rather than the person who might be going through a very difficult time of their life, and who’s possibly asking for assisted suicide out of fear or their concern for their difficult physical situation. We have to understand how the law actually works. By proposing this, people are reacting to the fear of suffering, they’re reacting to the fear of dying in a painful condition. I don’t want to suffer, and I don’t want to have painful conditions. I want to have in the future, a good death that is not experiencing uncontrolled symptoms. Absolutely. But people fear that, so that’s what the other side is playing on.
Then they say, “This is all about your choice, and autonomy, and your freedom,” clearly American concepts of our day. When you read the law, it’s not about my personal freedom, it’s not about my personal autonomy. The law is about giving a doctor the right in law to cause my death. Who actually decides? It’s the doctor who decides.
Assisted suicide is a threat to all of us, it’s a lie when they sell it to us, and it’s all about rejecting, as I say, what comes natural to the human person, which is to protect people and to care for people at the end of life.
Q: How is your organization responding to these developments? And what is your organization doing to help stem the tide?
We do several things. We have a direct connection to a counseling service that helps people that are going through difficult end of life conditions, that they can talk to somebody about it, they can receive advice and direction as to where they should be going with these situations. The other thing is we argue against the legalization and we’re trying to overturn laws where they’ve already been passed, by explaining what this is actually about.
We’ve also produced videos. In 2016, we released the “Euthanasia Deception” documentary, which deals with actual life experiences, people telling their story about euthanasia, assisted suicide, how it affected their life. And the “Fatal Flaws” film will be coming out this May, and it does exactly the same thing. We filmed in the Netherlands, U.S. and Canada, dealing directly with people who have had bad experiences, or life experiences with euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Q: How can people contact your organization?
Well, we’re easy to contact. The website is EPCC.ca. We have a toll-free number, 877-439-3348, or they can email us at info@EPCC.ca. Also, my blog, which is EPCBlog.org.