Quebec's collective depression

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010

Quebec's roving public consultations on euthanasia and assisted suicide began on Sept. 7, and wrap up at the end of this week.

Euthanasia has become something of a cultural fetish in Quebec. Films, plays and TV series portray the suffering who seek out euthanasia or assisted suicide as our new spiritual nobility. Former PQ MNA Jean-Pierre Charbonneau proudly remarked last week, in response to the observation that Quebec is the only province engaged in official encouragement of euthanasia: "It's proof that Quebec is distinct!"

Some distinction. And no more boast-worthy than Quebec's higher suicide rate relative to the rest of Canada

In a Sept. 11 Le Devoir column entitled "Quelle urgence?" -- What's the urgency? -- prominent journalist Denise Bombardier wonders why the government considers this issue such a hot priority: "Why debate ... the means of putting an end to life at this moment, in a Quebec which nobody can say exudes any enthusiasm, dynamism or vitality? To what end this urgency for a national debate on death, when we can intuitively sense the moral collapse of our citizenry, a collapse one might be tempted to call a collective depression?"

I think Mme. Bombardier is on to something in the phrase "collective depression." The province has long been bereft of spiritual aspiration, because cultural correctness here demands a childishly reflexive hostility to the Catholic Church (flaunted at the hearings by one euthanusiast, as I call euthanasia activists) and genuflection before a soulless statism. Quebec is now also bereft of the collective vision meant to replace religion -- separatism -- because globalization, Canadian demographics and mass immigration have rendered ethnic nationalism yesterday's news. A cultural malaise pervades these hearings. They aren't really about individuals in pain; they are about a society in pain, a society without hope for its future.

What was the ostensible prompt for these consultations, since any change to the criminal code would be a federal matter -- and the issue has been decisively rejected in Ottawa?

Advocacy groups are clamouring for it, but the general populace is not. Oncologist Caroline Girouard of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal testified that "In all my years of practice, I never got one request for euthanasia." Supposedly the hearings were a response to a poll of their membership by the Federation des medecins specialistes du Quebec, in which the majority of respondents expressed support for euthanasia. Glossed over is the fact that fewer than 20% of the doctors petitioned responded to the questionnaire, so in fact the vast majority of Quebec medical specialists cannot be claimed as proponents of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

Debates should take place on a level stage. Euthanusiasts are passionate and politically organized. Palliative care itself is in its infancy, and advocacy for it barely toddling. The euthanusiasts inundate the public with sad individual narratives that are emotive and persuasive, but polemically unworthy. Palliative-care advocates are stuck with dry appeals to reason.

In 1995, a senate committee recommended that the government put more money into research and expansion of palliative care. Nothing much came of it. At the moment, palliative care, which is highly effective in reducing anxiety and facilitating a peaceful, pain-free, unpressured death, is only offered to cancer sufferers, about 5% of those who need it.

One thing is certain. If euthanasia is legalized, expansion of palliative care will become politically expendable and therefore even more under-funded than it already is. Right now, the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital is developing a palliative care program for those

stricken with neurological afflictions such as stroke, Parkinsons, ALS and Multiple Sclerosis. Knowledge of the nervous system and the ability to treat these conditions is increasing rapidly. If euthanasia is legalized, that research will end or be radically curtailed. That's precisely why the World Health Organization has strongly recommended to its member countries that legalization not be considered until all avenues for pain relief and palliative care have been addressed.

Human suffering isn't going away. And neither is the human tendency to abuse legalized euthanasia. We see such abuse in Holland, for example, where many adults are euthanized without consent and children as young as 12 can be euthanized in some extraordinary circumstances; or in Oregon, where cancer patients with a poor prognosis have been offered funds for assisted suicide instead of chemotherapy.

Wouldn't happen here? Don't be naive. The Quebec consultations on euthanasia were conceived in bad faith.

I echo Mme. Bombardier: Where is the urgency?