MAiD to be VulnerableMAiD to be Vulnerable

MAiD to be Vulnerable

Laval University bioethicist Cory Labrecque argues the debate over medically assisted death ignores the reality we all face risk just by being human, Peter Stockland reports.

Peter Stockland
3 minute read
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Cory Labrecque began deeply re-thinking society’s growing acceptance of what we now euphemistically call Medical Aid in Dying when his plan to become a doctor collided with caring for his ailing grandmother. 

Labrecque, now an associate professor of theological ethics and bioethics at Laval University in Quebec City, says he was mystified at the language friends and colleagues used when, with the best of intentions, they warned him about the risk to his academic career if being present to his grandmother’s dementia continued to come first. 

“I was starting to miss classes, not even write exams and so on. And people were saying to me ‘Cory, your academic career is on the line for someone who is not really your grandmother anymore.’ I remember thinking ‘now what exactly does that mean? how is it possible she’s not my grandmother anymore?’ So, I ended up taking classes in religion and ethics because I found that’s where those questions were being asked in a serious, constructive way. So, I forfeited everything I learned in medicine, and became a specialist in bioethics.”

The emphasis Labrecque places on the change is not that he traded in the speculum for the professoriate but that he did so on the basis of lived experience. What he lived through, he says, led him to an understanding that his grandmother’s vulnerability revealed his own vulnerability. He had to decide which he cared for most: future career or immediate caring. Much more, he had to undertake the precarious task of seeking out what we mean by being human. 

By its nature, MAiD should set us all on that journey even if it necessitates confronting the fact, as Labrecque points out, that being human is inseparable from being vulnerable. Instead, he says, we’ve created for ourselves a legal-political comfort zone where our essential human condition never even has to be considered. Why? Because through the political pixie dust in our eyes, we’ve simply accepted that if the law allows what the law allows, then role of Parliament is to affirm what the law says is so. 

“When it comes to Medical Aid in Dying, there's been this rendering from on high that policymakers and government understand Canadians want this option. That is the underlying contention, and it has become static. We’re no longer considering everything it involves: all the logistics, all the conditions, all the criteria.”

 Certainly, that has been abundantly evident at the justice committee hearings on the federal government’s Bill C-7 that will radically expand MAiD. Despite vehement opposition from doctors, disability advocates, faith leaders and others over dropping key safeguards from the 2016 amendments that legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide. Only eight hours of witness testimony has been scheduled, and Bill C-7 could be rushed through the House of Commons and the Senate as early as the end of November.

The unholy rush to get the bill passed persists despite an Angus Reid-Cardus poll released yesterday showing that while about 70 per cent of Canadians have come to see MAiD as an end-of-life right, equal numbers express deep concerns about its logistics, conditions and criteria. Among the Cardus-Angus Reid poll’s findings about national attitudes toward MAiD:

  • 69 per cent express concern that its expansion will lead to people with mental health issues such as depression choosing to die from a lethal injection rather than address underlying causes of their conditions.
  • 65 per cent fear expansion through legislation like Bill C-7 will pressure vulnerable Canadians such as the elderly and disabled to choose MAiD in order to avoid being a burden on others.
  • 49 per cent qualify themselves as only “cautious supporters” of MAiD.
  • 70 per cent support increased government funding for traditional palliative care so that Canadians have a genuine alternative to MAiD.

For his part, Labrecque ascribes a great deal of the nominal support for MAiD to calculated neglect of the reality of human vulnerability in end-of-life discussion and debate. Instead, he says, we’ve adopted the habit of putting people into categories of vulnerability – the disabled, the elderly, the terminally ill – that in turn justifies our foregone conclusion that such labels justify MAiD. We allow ourselves to believe, as Labrecque himself experienced in the comments of his former med school colleagues about his grandmother, that such humans are somehow less than human on the sheer basis of their vulnerability. We are then prepared to “protect” them from that vulnerability by administering lethal injections in their arms.

“What those categories deny is that we are all vulnerable in some way,” he says. “If you've ever sat at the bedside of somebody who is dying, you're bearing witness to vulnerability. But our policymakers, our legal specialists are just as vulnerable as a patient who is medically vulnerable. Vulnerability is rooted in our lived reality.”

Perhaps rather than rushing through a piece of legislation to satisfy the demands of the legal-political nexus, we would be better to spend some time investigating our mystifying state of denial about how vulnerable we truly are.

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