Euthanasia is NOT a Merciful Act

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
17 Jun 2015

Professor of Medicine and Professor of Law at McGill University, Dr Margaret Somerville campaigns against the legalisation of assisted suicide

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not acts of mercy nor should they ever be considered a medical treatment, says internationally-renowned medical ethicist and lawyer, Dr Margaret Somerville.

The Adelaide-born founder and Director of Canada's McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, and the holder of professorships in both the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University is an outspoken and unrelenting opponent of assisted death.

With her straight talk and insistence on naming euthanasia for what it is - "assisted killing" - Dr Somerville has triggered anger and virulent attacks by proponents of euthanasia, particularly in light of the recent ruling by Canada's Supreme Court which struck down a law banning assisted suicide as unconstitutional, making euthanasia and assisted suicide legal in Canada from 2016.

Unfazed by the attacks, Dr Somerville continues to wage war against the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and firmly believes the decision by the Canadian Supreme Court constitutes a revolution of what binds us together as a society, and a radical departure from upholding the value and respect for life.

"This value implements the belief and practice that we must not intentionally kill another human being, the only exceptions being, where that is the only reasonable way to save innocent human life, as in justified self defence," she says.

Dr Margaret Somerville receiving one of her eight honorary doctorates at a ceremony
in Ontario last year

Currently visiting family in Adelaide, Dr Somerville will deliver two important addresses on euthanasia and the Canadian experience while she is in Australia. The first will take place this Saturday, 20 June when she will be the keynote speaker at the St Thomas More Forum and Annual Dinner in Canberra where she will discuss "linking kindness and killing: What we can learn from Canada that will help opponents of euthanasia to win the debate."
Ten days later on 30 June, she will be at University of Notre Dame, Sydney's Broadway Campus with an address entitled: "Death Talk: the Case against Euthanasia." 

The legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada, which will take effect next year, serves as a warning of what could happen here in Australia where for more than a decade in Federal, State and Territory Parliaments euthanasia has seldom been off the political agenda.

Introduced as private members' bills, each has been resoundingly defeated when put to the vote. But the most recent bill, tabled late last year in Federal Parliament by Greens Senator Richard di Natale has not yet to be debated or voted on. Unlike previous bills, di Natale's Medical Services (Dying with Dignity) Bill 2014 carefully omits the word "euthanasia" and refers to Assisted Suicide as a "medical service," enabling the Bill to come under Section 51 of the Australian Constitution which gives Federal Parliament the power to legislate medical services.

"Making euthanasia and assisted suicide part of medical practice is not, as euthanasia advocates and the Canadian Supreme Court would claim, a small incremental change consistent with interventions that we accept as ethical and legal, such as honouring patients' refusal of life-support treatment that allows them to die. It represents a radical change in medicine," Dr Somerville warns.

Greens Federal Senator Richard Di Natale's Bill describes assisted suicide by physicians as medical services

For 2400 years, consistent with the Hippocratic Oath, physicians have been prohibited from killing and euthanasia has never been characterised as a medical treatment. But with the legalisation of assisted suicide, not only is the law changed to allow killing, but physicians are authorised to carry this out.

"In a secular society, such as ours, law and medicine carry the value of respect for life for the society as a whole. Their capacity to do that in Canada is seriously damaged by the (The Supreme Court) decision which is primarily focussed on what individuals want," she says.

Although raised a Catholic who 30 years later rediscovered her faith and now attends weekly Mass, Dr Somerville is careful to avoid teachings of the Church and religion generally when she speaks out against the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

"The problem with using religion as a basis is that if you are religious you are already convinced, and if you are not religious, then you are turned off," she says.

When speaking with people of faith who are seeking strategies to use in the battle against the legalisation of euthanasia, one of the first questions Dr Somerville always asks is: "who are they trying to convince?"

"Is it yourself? No they will say. Is it your fellow religionists? No, they already believe as I do, will be the answer. Those they want are not religious and religious moral values and teachings are not something that will sway them or change their minds," she says.

Proponents of euthanasia use emotive language to get their message across, adopting euphemisms such as assisted suicide claiming this as "an act of mercy" or "compassionate clinical care."

Given modern multi disciplinary palliative care even those who thought death was the answer almost always decide to live

"Why is it that the majority of people would automatically cringe if they heard someone say 'the doctor will kill my mother tomorrow?' If having an appointment with death is a good thing as advocates of euthanasia argue, then why not call it for what it is? It is not a simple medical procedure. It is killing," she says bluntly.

Dr Somerville knows the power of words and how the way in which they are used can affect our moral intuitions and emotions. Softening language to justify a decision makes it seem less threatening, more ethically acceptable and consequently easier to support, she says adding that the media which is largely pro-euthanasia, excels at this.
Proponents of euthanasia frequently turn to the media to support their arguments, creating emotionally-gripping television of a courageous man or a woman who is desperately ill and in agonising pain from a terminal disease, pleading to be allowed to die.

"Arguments against euthanasia based on the harm that would do to society both now and into the future are much more difficult to present. Viewers don't identify or empathise with what they see as little more than abstractions", she says.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of Canada's recent decision legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide, is the Supreme Court ruling that there "is no difference" between withdrawing life support treatment to permit a person to die, and killing the person, reasoning that if the former is legal and ethical so too is the latter.

Equally disturbing was the Court deciding that if suicide is not illegal, then assisted suicide should not be illegal either.

Dr Somerville points out that this argument is not valid.

Euthanasia is a complex issue that challenges the fundamental principles on which society is based

"Suicide ceased being illegal in order to save lives, not take them. We try to stop people ending their own life. Doctors and nurses fight to save the lives of those who attempt suicide. But assisted suicide is the opposite. This is deliberate killing and adds a new and terrible aspect to the spectrum of caring," she says.

Dr Somerville urges all of us to consider the values we hold in trust for future generations.

"Just as we now realise our actions could destroy our physical ecosystem and we must hold it in trust for future generations, we must also hold our metaphysical ecosystem - the collection of values, principles, beliefs, attitude and shared stories that bind us together as a society - likewise in trust for them. In this regard there is no more important value that the respect for life. This requires us to always act toward people with pain and suffering with deep compassion and give assistance to relieve and kill the pain and suffering but not the person with the pain and suffering."

Dr Somerville's address 'Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia' will be held at the University of Notre Dame Sydney's Campus at 104 Broadway at 6 pm on Tuesday, 30 June. Phone: 02 8204 4240 or email: