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Sen. Betty Unger on Bill C-14: ’I am morally opposed’

Why one senator sees the assisted-dying bill as ’just morally wrong’
Senator Betty Unger.
Senator Betty Unger.
Senator Betty Unger.

Several members of the Senate have spoken out against the government’s proposed assisted-death bill, on the grounds that it is too narrow and restrictive. But there are also those who oppose the bill because they object to assisted death entirely. As the Red Chamber prepares to take another look at Bill C-14, now that it has passed third reading in the House of Commons, Maclean’s spoke to one senator who objects to it: Betty Unger, who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2012.

Q: What’s your view of this bill?

A: I am morally opposed. Period. There’s no amount of amendment that can make this bill better. There are some that can make it less harmful, but the basic premise of the bill is changing the Criminal Code to legalize assisted homicide, killing—whatever words you want to use. I have followed carefully what is happening in the Netherlands, in Belgium, and I know that they are now going down the slippery slope. And Canada appears to be ready­ to throw this wide open, so that Canada would have the most liberal, open policies of any country in the world.

Q: What’s in the bill so far is not the most liberal of what’s available in the world. Is that what you’re talking about?

A: No, but it will be. Because what’s not in the bill yet, the Liberals are talking about studying. I don’t know with certainty, but I would presume studying with an eye to adding them.

Q: Can you tell me what you mean by a slippery slope for jurisdictions like the Netherlands and Belgium?

A: I read this some time ago, but elderly people or people with disabilities are going to their lawyer before they go to their doctor. They go to their lawyer to get a sworn affidavit to say ‘I do not wish to be euthanized,’ because they are afraid that if something should happen, that would be their fate. I’m from Alberta, and there have been discussions ongoing in Alberta. I read headlines that say elderly people are becoming afraid of their doctors. They want to stay home, and they want to have good health care provided to them, and it is just wrong that our government seems to be prepared to do more to help the living die than it is to help the living have a good retirement or live well until they die naturally.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: There will be money spent as a result of this, and why not put more money into palliative care? The government had talked about that, and there was a figure of $3 billion that was mentioned, but there’s been no mention of it since. That money would make a huge difference in providing palliative care. As it stands today, about 30 per cent of Canadians have access to palliative care. There should be no option for death unless there’s another option, and that should be good palliative care, or good medical support—a doctor, a psychiatrist, a social worker, maybe. Because people have different needs, but that’s not being talked about at all.

Q: What is your response to people who argue this is necessary because there are conditions such as terminal cancer in which it is not possible, even with good palliative care, to control the pain someone might be in?

A: I don’t accept that argument. I know that if end of life appears (likely) within the next 10 days to two weeks, people can be put in a sort of suspended state where they don’t feel pain, and their families can still visit with them until their eventual passing—and they do pass naturally. That’s the extreme.

Q: So your contention is that assisted death is not necessary because there must be ways to control people’s pain even in the case of terminal illness?

A: Yes. I believe there are better ways. Marijuana is now being touted as a potential wonder drug for people who are suffering terminal illness—from cancer, specifically.

Q: In your first comment, you said flatly, ‘I am morally opposed.’ I wonder if you can tell me a little more what that means to you?

A: I am a Catholic, and a practising Catholic. When you hear someone say, ‘I’m Catholic, but…’ you know the ‘but’ puts them in a different category. I am a Catholic, and I am opposed to killing. And especially vulnerable people who may not want to be killed.

Related: How assisted death became the new pro-choice

Q: What about the people lining up who do want this option for themselves? Kay Carter would be one example, but there are many others who have said, ‘I’ve been diagnosed with this condition, this is how I would like to control my end.’ What’s your response to that kind of direct, personal advocacy?

A: We know that there are approximately 30 per cent of Canadian physicians who are prepared to do this. Before this issue started to be debated, people were going to different countries because this is how they wanted their end to be. Right now, we don’t have an abortion law in Canada, and people seek and obtain abortions. I won’t say for a fact, but I know that there are doctors—this practice is already being done.

Q: You mentioned amendments that could make C-14 less harmful. Can you tell me what you’d like to see?

A: Well, one would be if there is not an option of palliative care, there cannot only be death. I just read an article about a real-life person who kept telling his family he wanted to die. What they did was found a new doctor for him, they found new supports for him, and that man lived two more years, died naturally, and during those two years, he kept telling his family how grateful he was that they didn’t just say, “Okay, we’ll help you.”

Michele Constantini/Getty Images
Michele Constantini/Getty Images

Q: What broader lesson do you take from that that we should keep in mind?

A: This issue is being forced to debate in Canada because three people chose to make an issue of it, and of course it went to the Supreme Court, and you know the rest. Most Canadians never thought about this. It hasn’t been top of mind for anybody, really, but for three people. Quebec has the legislation as a province; they studied it for six years. And yet this legislation is getting rammed through the House, and more or less hurried through the Senate.

Q: How would you have preferred to see the House and Senate handle it?

A: I’d prefer to see more open discussion with Canadians. They’ve had no say. Their members of Parliament go, but when closure is invoked, their members of Parliament are silenced. There really has not been a good debate in Canada at large.

Related: Sandra Martin on how to legislate doctor-assisted death

Q: What do you feel are the options available to you, now that the bill is going back to the Senate?

A: I’m going to try to make a couple of amendments, I’m going to be speaking to the bill. Palliative care, and conscience rights for doctors, health care workers and institutions who don’t want to do this. It should not be done in a hospital, because it will strike fear into the heart of every elderly person.

Q: So many people who have strong feelings about this have personal experience. Have you had experience in your family with extended illnesses or anything like this?

A: Not the palliative care issue, but both my parents and my husband are gone, and I was with each one when they passed.

Q: What lessons did you draw from those experiences that impact your moral decision about this?

A: It wasn’t these specific examples, it’s my upbringing as a Catholic. It’s just morally wrong.