February 14, 2011

GATINEAU, QUEBEC - As Quebec marked Suicide Prevention Week (Jan. 30-Feb. 5), the province's Select Committee on Dying with Dignity held hearings here testing support for legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The irony did not escape Linda Couture, who directs Living with Dignity, a grassroots, non-religious organization that has been monitoring the hearings as the committee travels across Quebec.

Living with Dignity is also marshalling opposition from a wide range of groups and individuals to any changes to the law or its enforcement.

On Jan. 30, Couture received a copy of a press release from Marguerite Blais, the Quebec minister for seniors, who kicked off Suicide Prevention Week by expressing alarm over the high rates of suicide among the elderly and criticizing the belief that suicide is a normal response to growing older.

Couture said Blais has made as eloquent a plea as any she has heard that suicide is never a normal or acceptable response to age or illness.

"How could a medicalized suicide be acceptable?" Couture asked. "There's something missing. I don't get it."

The select committee, composed of members of Quebec's National Assembly (MNAs), has been holding public hearings in cities across Quebec since September. Couture said she has attended most of them. The committee wraps up its hearings at the end of February and will then write a report.

On Feb. 1, Dr. Jose Pereira, head of palliative care at an Ottawa hospital, told the committee legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide "places people at risk. In Oregon, for example, where depression has to be excluded, we know that people with a depression are more likely to ask for assisted suicide or euthanasia," he said. In Oregon, he added, one in six people who received assisted suicide were found to have untreated depression.


"My brother-in-law committed suicide last year, and it was a very difficult time for our family," he said. "Looking back, we feel it was a depression that wasn't treated."

Pereira, who has worked in Switzerland where assisted suicide is allowed, said the rules change over time. At first assisted suicide was only supposed to apply to those who are terminally ill, at the end of life and suffering. Yet within two years, there was a campaign to allow assisted suicide for those "in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, for people who were elderly and felt that they didn't want to live anymore."

Joan Lusignan, a private citizen in her eighties, testified the special committee had her worried. The government is trying to prevent suicides among Quebec's young people, but what will future generations think if, on the other hand, the government allows others to receive help in committing suicide, she asked.

"The problem of suicide doesn't just affect one person, it haunts the whole family for generations," she said.

Couture said she is worried about how political the process has become. She noted how the MNAs tend to zero in on the five or six hard cases of individuals whose stories seem to recur over and over at the hearings. "They really get stuck on the individual stories, the exceptions," Couture said.

There have been 300 or so testimonies presented to the select committee so far. About 80 per cent of them have been made by individuals. Couture estimates they have been about two to one against legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide.

But reports have said the presentations are about 50/50, she said.


The committee has also said it is not numbers that interested them so much as the "quality" or the emotional appeal of the presentation, especially from individual citizens, Couture said.

Yet emotionally touching stories of those who pitched in as a family to take care of dying parents and spouses "don't seem to touch them," she said.

But she warned the province better "think twice" about introducing a new bureaucracy that might require two doctors signing off to kill patients when "one million people like me don't have a family doctor."

The province did not expect the level of response, she said. If politicians go ahead and "smuggle" in euthanasia and assisted suicide under a euphemism like "medical aid in dying" she believes Quebeckers will find it unacceptable and rise up.