Physician holds a patient's hand. Via Flickr

Ending it All... by Law

When he least expected it, Marc Beauchamp saw the people promoting euthanasia in Québec in an entirely different light....
Alessandra Stoppa

When he least expected it, Marc Beauchamp saw the people promoting euthanasia in Québec in an entirely different light. An orthopedic surgeon in Montréal, he has dedicated four years of massive commitment to the public debate in order to defeat Bill 52, the proposed law for euthanasia in Québec. He does not hide the fact that in these four years of meetings, articles, television appearances, work in the Parliamentary Commission, face to face with the “adversaries,” he has felt a certain hostility against those “on the other side,” the supporters of euthanasia.

Six months ago, he found himself in a studio of the national television station with the Minister of Social Services, Véronique Hivon, the promoter of the law, the “enemy” par excellence. “We said things that were diametrically opposed, but after she spoke, I looked her in the face; I wanted to look well. In that moment, something happened.

"I realized that we are all on a journey toward something greater. We make mistakes–I am certain that this law is a terrible error–but we are on a journey, both of us, to know the truth of life.” The same dignity he so desired to protect, for which he battled so fiercely, he saw in her face: the mysterious journey of the other toward her destiny. That day, he thought he would have returned home sad. He already imagined it: “Hearing all those lies hurts you.” Instead, he went home happy: “It was the greatest surprise, after a public ‘clash,’ to find myself so true and full of tenderness for her. There is nothing better than this, experiencing a consciousness of yourself and of the other that did not exist before.”

SLIPPERY SLOPE. Beauchamp works in a hospital and is a researcher. He has seven children, some quite young. He is also President of Vivre dans la Dignité (Living with Dignity), the broadest and most lively movement of opposition to euthanasia, and is part of the collective of 616 physicians ready to go to the Supreme Court should the law pass. Bill 52 speaks with soft deceit of “medical aid in dying.” Since euthanasia is subject to federal criminal law, which cannot be modified by a province, proponents in Québec have tried to accelerate its passage by introducing it as a reform of the medical profession, which instead falls under the purview of the provinces. Up to a few days ago, it was taken for granted that it would be approved by the Québec Parliament, but doubts about it increased, the liberals withdrew their support, and it failed to obtain a majority vote. On March 5th, elections were called and at this point, Bill 52 will be an issue for the new government.

The beginning of the slippery slope that led here–the visible beginning–was the 2009 bill presented to the Canadian House of Commons by a member of the Parliament of Québec, to challenge the law. It was rejected by a vote of 228 to 59 a year later. A special commission of the national assembly, “Mourir dans la dignité” (“Dying with Dignity”), was named and shortly after they proposed: “We have to think of something for those who are at the end of life, so that they do not suffer.”

WHAT IS AT RISK? Beauchamp, with other physician friends, was concerned about what was happening from the very first signs. “We said, this time, something grave is coming. History has proven us right.” From the beginning, there was a very precise plan, and its intention was revealed only step by step. “We realized that the problem was widespread ignorance and confusion, a weakness of judgment.” They began an information campaign, holding meetings and debates, starting from the doctor-patient relationship, and were pained to discover that many are satisfied with what they already know, settling for a superficial position or, worse, indifference. “Education is a work that requires a great deal of time. But this does not reduce the fact that we are called to face an emergency.”

The emergency concerns, above all, the way the law is written, because it leaves room for broader interpretations. “If euthanasia is sanctioned as a ‘right to treatment,’ it could be followed by a request that everyone have this right.” Given Belgium’s recent approval of euthanasia for minors without age limit, it is evident that this concern is not mere alarmism.

Future applications depend on the vagueness of certain passages in the law’s guidelines. The text stipulates that in order to ask for death, a person must be “of legal age and able to give consent,” have received from two physicians the diagnosis of “a grave and incurable illness” (art. 26.2), have experienced an “advanced and irreversible decline of capacities” (art. 26.3) and “physical or psychological pain which cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable” (art. 26.4). But what is the meaning of “grave illness”? What is meant by “unacceptable physical or psychological suffering”? Could mental illness meet these criteria? Depression? The wording of the law leaves holes in the description of things. For example, it lacks a precise definition of “end-of-life.” It is evident that a grave and incurable illness does not necessarily coincide with a “terminal state.” Does it intend to also include in the requisites for admission the majority of patients in geriatric wards? What about those suffering from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, forms of sclerosis, blindness, or arthrosis? What about anorexia? There is no clarity on what “medical aid in dying” means or the suffering that “cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable.” Everything becomes subjective. Medicalization of homicide, even when presented with a respectful and tolerant attitude, is a radical position.“The language is soft. It is presented as a natural evolution of society, when instead it is a leap in the conception of the person, of living and of dying.”

“If euthanasia is sanctioned as a ‘right to treatment’, it could be followed by a request that everyone have this right.”

The memorandum that Vivre dans la Dignité gave the parliamentary commission referred to the Hippocratic Oath, the foundation of the medical profession for 21 centuries: “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgement and never do harm to anyone. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such council.” Beauchamp continues, “I would easily have participated in the gesture of ‘compassion’ asked of me had I not received and learned the possibility of looking at all of reality, not just the part that pleases me.”

“We need to consider a broader vision of things as they are, of physicians as they are, of patients as they are. What is at stake with this law is a gaze on the person rooted in the tradition of Christianity, of the Jewish faith, and of all of Western society.”

Beauchamp’s decision to engage in these five years of struggle was not automatic. “It has been a very demanding battle, and painful as well. However, my passion is not for the battle, but for the human person, for my relationship with God, the source of love and openness to myself and others.” He thinks of the many evenings spent outside or at home, writing, studying, discussing. “For me and my wife, who is an oncologist, it has been first of all an opportunity to live life as one, united in openness to what we love most, to the presence of Christ in those we have before us.” He became involved in this commitment precisely because of the question that his daily work prompted in him. Family members or nurses asked him to help particularly grave patients to die, people who were already ill and were weakened by surgery. “It was obvious that there were no bad intentions in their request. They wanted the person not to suffer. But this made me ask, ‘What is my work now? Who is this person who is suffering?’” He realized that one can do everything without considering the mystery of things, or, instead, one can stop and ask, “What is here? Is there only what I see? Or do I have before me a greatness that I cannot measure? “Prudence and humility lead to the right position, help you not exploit the person and your own power. The nature of my work is a relationship between two people, myself and the patient, for whom I am responsible, but the responsibility is to sustain life, which does not belong to me.”

THE “CLASH.” The physicians engaged in opposing the law are not all believers. “There are those who were educated to this gaze by the experience of faith, and others by personal experiences.”

This is the case of Nicolas Steenhout, General Director of Vivre dans la Dignité, and an agnostic. He has a video on Youtube in which, sitting in a wheelchair in snowy Montréal, he recounts, “Everyone gets discouraged at one time or another, very discouraged. From my own experience, I know that. If someone had told me five years ago, ‘Look, euthanasia is available,’ I probably would have done it.” A neurological disease had caused him to lose the use of his legs, and he went through a period of depression during which he considered suicide. Today, he battles to affirm the sacredness of life because “he is a weak man who experienced what it means to be dependent. This made him look at himself in a new light.”

Whatever the creed or background of people, the “clash,” as Beauchamp calls it, “is always between those who have had an experience and those who have an idea.” The very idea of freedom either finds definition within reality or it becomes violent. “If we separate freedom from how we are made, it is abstract: can a man say he is free to go into the desert without water just because he wants to? His body needs water to drink. Similarly, you would have to be blind not to react negatively in front of a person who dies because of a gesture of yours. A gesture of freedom that generates violence is the symptom of a problem.” It happens if the way of looking at people is clouded–the way of looking at their desire, and their happiness.