McGill University bioethics professor Margaret Somerville challenges the push for euthanasia.


McGill University bioethics professor Margaret Somerville challenges the push for euthanasia.

December 24, 2012

In the coming months Canada's laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide will be challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Hassan Rasouli, a man rendered speechless and mostly non-responsive in Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital by a catastrophic infection of bacterial meningitis. Then an appeal of the Carter vs. Attorney General of British Columbia will pass through the B.C. Court of Appeal on its way, likely, to the Supreme Court of Canada.

By spring the Quebec government is promising to make physician-assisted suicide effectively legal in that province by putting in place regulations preventing prosecution of doctors who kill terminally ill patients.

It's a debate that has split Canadians since Sue Rodriguez went to court in 1992. She asked for medical help in ending her life once Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) took away her ability to kill herself.


Churches, and particularly Catholics, have opposed changes to the law which would see the state endorse killing inconvenient patients. Basic Christian teaching on the sanctity of life makes the Church stand obvious and expected.

But McGill University law and bioethics professor Margaret Somerville has emerged as the most prominent secular challenger to the movement to make euthanasia a legal, normal and accepted practice.

While in Toronto to deliver a lecture Nov. 22 for the deVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, Somerville sat down for a talk with The Catholic Register. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

Catholic Register: Are you hopeful that this is a winnable argument?

Margaret Somerville: Definitely. I'm an incurable optimist. Even if we don't win, what matters is that we try and that we keep on trying.

CR: Is there any way to win the argument against euthanasia if assisted suicide opponents are dismissed as religious fanatics?

MS: That's why I argue as I do. And it's why people get so mad at me, because they can't dismiss me that way. I'm not arguing from a religious base and none of my articles argue from a religious base.

I think some of the religious people make mistakes, that's for sure, in the strategies they use. This current divide in pro-life circles between either total banning of abortion or no law at all – that's a huge mistake, huge, huge, huge.

CR: Do you see the same mistake being made in the euthanasia debate?


MS: Well, I'm worried that it will be. Their beliefs are informed by their religion – and of course that's perfectly acceptable and reasonable. But to expect other people to accept it because it's religious is a mistake. Other people who are not religious will reject it because it's religious. You can say these are my beliefs and as it happens they're concordant with my religion. But this is what I personally believe and what I think is good social and public policy. There are very strong arguments for that.

CR: Has the argument against euthanasia been ghettoized? Are the only people who care about the issue committed religious activists and organizations?

MS: They're not the only people who care about it, which is rather reassuring. The biggest group who are against euthanasia are doctors, and certainly by far not all of them are Church people. It really has to do with values. There are certain progressive values versus more traditional values. None of my arguments are based on religion. Not any of them.

CR: What do anti-euthanasia advocates have to do to win the debate?

MS: Good facts are essential for good ethics. One of the things that's wrong with respect to Justice (Lynn) Smith's judgment (in Carter v. Attorney General of B.C.) is that she purports to review the use of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the jurisdictions that have legalized it. She said there is no problem, there is no slippery slope. Well, that's simply not right factually.

The pro-euthanasia people are very keen on saying there's a societal consensus, that everyone wants this. Well yes, but you've got to make sure those surveys are properly done.

If you say to somebody that someone is in terrible pain and they want euthanasia, should they be able to have it? You've got to choose between saying yes to euthanasia and saying no to pain and suffering relief. What you have to do is ask people, does someone have absolute rights to all possible pain management? And the answer is yes, absolutely.

CR: If you look at the arguments in favour of euthanasia in their most positive light, they are arguments based on compassion. They want to end very real suffering.

MS: One of their arguments is that they wish to end suffering. The other argument is based on autonomy. It's also connected to what they perceive as human dignity – their definition of human dignity. The Carter judgment, the Royal Society (of Canada) report and the Quebec (College of Physicians 2009) report all really are fundamentally based on a right to individual autonomy, choice and self-determination overriding any damage to the value of respect for life.

CR: What's bad about autonomy?

MS: There's nothing bad about autonomy. But, like anything else, unbridled it can cause serious damage. The reality is that we're not just isolated molecules. You have to have certain restrictions on freedom to maintain the conditions that make freedom possible.

I don't think we need to ask how we will die. If you institute this (euthanasia) now, probably we won't be euthanized if we don't want to be euthanized. Though, there's serious reason to believe that might not be the case if you look at the Netherlands and Belgium.


But I think the question we need to ask is how do we want our great-great grandchildren to die? And what sort of a society are we leaving them? What norms will we adopt?

I'm certain that if you simply give priority to individual autonomy, without taking into account the harm that you do at other levels – at institutional and societal levels – then you could probably end up with a society in which no reasonable person would want to live. That's where our responsibility lies. It lies in holding in trust values for our descendants, for future generations.

CR: Is the argument against euthanasia a naturally right wing or conservative argument?

MS: No, I don't think so. But you do get clusters of values.

If you took me as an example, I'm socially conservative and fiscally liberal. But, I'm not standard socially conservative either. I think we should legalize marijuana. I'm against capital punishment.

I can't believe conservatives who are anti-euthanasia and pro-capital punishment. I think it's absolutely absurd. I'm against same-sex marriage, but I'm not against homosexuality. I think homosexuality is natural for some people. I'm against same-sex marriage because of its impact on kids' rights.


That's why it's so difficult to vote now. You can't find a politician who will uphold all your values. So you have to prioritize your values and say what's most important. I think euthanasia is extremely important.

Actually, I don't use left and right wing any more. Even if you care a lot about individual autonomy you might want to preserve the collective for the benefit of the individual. An isolated human is a very sad being.

What's happened in the pro-euthanasia argument is that there's what I call intense individualism. There's no tolerance with respect to that issue for overriding the wishes of an individual.