Stockland: There's no reset button on state-sanctioned killing

February 27, 2011
Calgary Herald

Instead of trying to prompt a debate on euthanasia by killing his wife with an injection of lethal drugs, Nova Scotia resident Stefan Bolton should have bent an ear toward Quebec.

He would have heard abundant reasons to stay his hand. He would also, if he'd been able to closely follow Quebec's public consultation on euthanasia and assisted suicide, witnessed growing coldness to the initial fervour for normalizing them as medical treatments.

When he went public with a confession and turned himself over to police last week, Bolton said he was wracked with grief and wanted someone "in authority" to say he'd done no wrong when he killed Barbara Jean Jollimore-Bolton on Jan. 22.

He's unlikely to hear that from anyone with real authority in Quebec. Au contraire.

A year after an all-party committee of the National Assembly began provincewide public hearings on the issue, euthanasia and assisted suicide appeared precisely nowhere in Premier Jean Charest's speech this week setting out his government's agenda for a new session of the legislature.

Besieged by crises ranging from allegations of government corruption to a strike by woefully underpaid Crown prosecutors, Charest has let the special committee disappear beneath the political waves.

Even the committee chairman, Montreal Liberal MNA Geoff Kelley, began publicly insisting several weeks ago that the hearings were not a government initiative but rather something the opposition Parti Quebecois cooked up. Shortly afterward, Kelley was appointed to cabinet and the proceedings went on without him.

What was supposed to have been the final public session Thursday was abruptly cancelled because of Charest's recall of the legislature.

It's not clear what the effect will be on a report and recommendations expected in early spring.

Some Liberal MNAs say they're committed to listening but nothing else.

None of which says definitively that the euthanasia debate is dead in Quebec. Self-styled dying with dignity aficionados have two forms: stubborn and fanatical. The truly hardcore will expire before they give up their thanatic fixation.

Evidence of that is the way the public hearings came to be held in the first place.

Canada's Criminal Code prohibits euthanasia and assisted suicide. It is a federal matter.

A bid by a Bloc Quebecois MP to decriminalize them was crushingly defeated in the House of Commons. Even as it became obvious the bill was going down, however, a crude propaganda campaign began claiming Quebecers supported making the medicalized killing of adult patients as a routine a part of hospital life as pre-natal ultrasound.

The argument advanced was that since provinces have the constitutional authority to define medical treatment, Quebec should simply ignore Ottawa, declare euthanasia and assisted suicide to be normal health care, and direct Crown prosecutors to stop laying charges.

(It's an approach that makes the Quebec debate as critical in Calgary as Chicoutimi, as menacing in Medicine Hat as Montreal. If it ever is accepted in Quebec, Albertans and all Canadians risk witnessing the opening of new homicide wings at their own local hospitals.)

But the public hearings have provided the opportunity to ask whether Quebec really wants to join countries such as Switzerland, Belgium and Holland in the unqualified disaster of legalized medical killing. The question has raised an even more compelling question: how do you get out of this social cesspool once you've plunged in? There's an even more compelling question from that: if you suspect it might be a cesspool, why plunge in at all?

At an early February session in Gatineau, across the river from Parliament Hill, palliative care specialist Dr. Jose Pereira detailed the nightmares now facing the Swiss, the Belgians and the Dutch. He was then asked why, if the situation is so grim in those democratic countries, legislators don't just go back and re-criminalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.

His brief, simple answer went to the heart of, and took the heart out of the case for social sanctioning of medically administered death. Once authority structures convert from protecting human life to being complicit in its destruction, their vested interest lies in perpetuating normalization of the change. Once societies cross the threshold from venerating human life to casually disposing of it, there is no just going back. History does not have a reset button.

Of course, democratic societies can change their minds and their course in numerous respects. Taxes can be raised, lowered and raised again. Even something as significant as capital punishment can be introduced, abolished, re-introduced and abolished yet again. The self-evident difference is that administrative matters can be undone. Death cannot. Over-taxation can be remitted. Blood shed by state killing forever stains the society that condoned it.

The impossibility of erasure is what makes the progressive mania for uncontrolled social experiment so historically dangerous. Relying on generational change to recover from today's recklessness is the epitome of social fecklessness.

Slavery ended in the United States almost 150 years ago. Its evils still contort American political and social life.

An estimated 50 million of the unborn have been aborted in the U.S since Roe vs. Wade in 1973. At that rate, if society discovers in 30 years that abortion really is wrong after all, more than 100 million lost lives will have to be explained.

Where political life is not merely administrative, its purpose is to safeguard the moral thresholds of the past against the predations of the present for the sanity of the future.

Its habit is debate, true enough, but its essence must be the conviction that wrong is wrong no matter how much agitated individuals, or fanatical opportunists, want to have it declared right.

Had he been able to listen closely to the euthanasia debate in Quebec, Nova Scotia's Stephan Bolton might have heard that difference between wrong and right being affirmed.

Tragically, he was otherwise engaged.