Imagine a dog born with a serious disability. The dog, unable to walk or feed itself, is in constant pain according to its veterinarian. Because it often has seizures, the dog must take medication to stop them, but the medication prevents it from taking pain medication. In such a case, most people will think it reasonable to have the dog put down -- its quality of life is sufficiently poor and were it able to, it would likely request euthanasia.
If the same situation involves a human, however, many think that contemplating euthanasia is equal to contemplating murder. Canada's justice system, as with most in the western world, is stuck with the inability to recognize that some killing is the right thing to do, not for other parties, but for the human concerned.
In 1993, a Saskatchewan farmer named Robert Latimer killed his 13-year-old severely disabled daughter. She was born with cerebral palsy, which caused her incredible pain, left her unable to use her muscles and because of medication she took to prevent seizures, she could not take pain medication. He was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder with a recommended sentence of one year. After several Crown appeals, however, the original sentence was overturned and Latimer went to jail for 10 years. He was granted day parole in 2008 and was given full parole last December. Two weeks ago, he told a CBC reporter that he has no regrets about killing his daughter -- faced with the same situation Latimer says he would do it again.
Some people have trouble accepting that compassionate killing is sometimes justifiable. The influence of Christianity on western society for thousands of years has instilled many of us with the belief that human life is sacred, that to kill another human is always immoral. Others argue that humans have rights which protect us from being killed -- to treat humans otherwise is to equate us with animals (the Calgary Herald editorial board favours this approach). Still others argue that permitting euthanasia will lead to eugenics because they think that killing all disabled people will become permissible.
While all of these anti-euthanasia arguments are popular, they are all mistaken. The history of human emancipation is in large part the story of casting off the chains of religious demagoguery. The thickest chains are the ones we fail to realize exist. When we euthanize a dog we are acting "humanely," yet we deny similar treatment to other humans. In some cases killing really is justifiable, such as when someone is born with incurable health problems that cause extreme pain.
Humans are said to possess rights, but rights are meant to protect our interests. We all have an interest in not feeling constant pain, so while there are sometimes hard cases when the human can't speak for herself, no right is violated if it is reasonable to think that others act in her best interest by killing her. While the Calgary Herald claims that Latimer treated his daughter like an animal, in their haste they forgot give reasons for why humans and animals should be treated differently in this instance. Indeed, they accidentally made the case for euthanasia quite well: "He took [her] life on the same principle that someone might have an infirm dog put down -- to end the suffering." Ending suffering, so long as it is sufficiently bad and can't be relieved, seems like a perfectly good reason to end someone's life.
The last ditch effort of defenders of a backward belief system is always to claim that the sought-after change puts society on the slippery slope to ruin. We can say, however, that there is a strong difference between killing, which is morally neutral, and murder, which denotes unjust killing. The legal system performs this task in other areas, so what reason is there to think that it would be different for euthanasia?
In fact, legalizing euthanasia will decrease the risk of murderers going unpunished. Latimer had the unfortunate -- though morally obligatory -- task of killing his own daughter when it was clear that it was the right thing to do. A real worry is that people won't be able to recognize when euthanasia is justified. Latimer's case teaches us an important lesson: citizens should not have to take such matters into their own hands. If the justice system functioned properly, a panel of experts could decide in a more objective manner whether or not euthanasia is the best course of action. Of course, that would only be possible in a system that recognizes that it is sometimes justifiable to take a human life.