Mark Miller, C.Ss.R. Ph.D.
One of the troubling recommendations of last spring’s Senate Report on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide was the recommendation that Parliament consider creating “a separate offence of compassionate homicide…that would carry a less severe penalty” (than a mandatory life sentence). This would mean that the present distinctions concerning the killing of another human being—first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter—would be expanded to include something loosely referred to as mercy killing. Such killing is usually defined as the ending of a person’s life for reasons of compassion in the face of (unbearable) suffering.
I cannot help but think that this recommendation is a response principally to the case of Robert Latimer who ended his daughter Tracy’s life because he felt her suffering was too great. Of course, there have been a number of other ‘mercy killings’ that have reached the courts, usually with some media attention. However, in most of those cases conviction has been handed down not on the basis of killing another human being, but as assisting a desired suicide or in response to a reduced charge of administering a noxious substance (e.g., potassium chloride which, at least in one case of a person very close to death, could not be proven to have killed the patient despite the fact that PCl would be given for no other reason). Probation rather than jail sentences have been the norm.
The comments of judges in some of these cases have nonetheless been quite instructive. One judge in Edmonton commented to the effect that a son helping his mother die was an act of love! In short, there seems to be considerable sympathy in our society for a type of killing according to a very loose notion of compassion.
The Latimer case, however, remains troubling because a man who has been presented as a loving father received the mandatory 25-year jail sentence for second-degree murder (with parole eligibility only after 10 years in jail). His own claim was simply that he was ending his daughter’s suffering. Murder is murder, the law says, with its usual blind devotion to justice. But I cannot help feeling like something is out of place in our justice system when Karla Homolka received only 12 years because she had something to bargain with.
But do we need a special category for mercy killing? What would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Latimer? Should the sentencing judge have more flexibility with a second- degree murder conviction?
The Canadian bishops, among many others, have reacted very strongly against adding the category of mercy killing to the criminal code. Their arguments, I would add, are eminently reasonable. First, there is the danger of abuse. Clever killers can plead that their deeds were acts of compassion, or even disguise them to look as if they were.
Second, and more importantly, mercy killing implies that someone is suffering and the killing was the ‘only’ option—at least, the only one the killer could think of! This means that a subjective assessment of another’s suffering provides the justification for a mercy killing. The state of the killer—and this could cover emotional hysteria, or exhaustion, or impatience—justifies the actions, rather than the seriousness with which other options (like good pain control) have been explored.
And, third, the lives of those who are most vulnerable suddenly become more vulnerable. If you are handicapped, suffering, near death, depressed, your life is not as safe as any other citizen’s. And those closest to you may only need a legal opening to make a painful option sound respectable.
Mercy killing as a legal category is a Pandora’s box which may not only open doors to the unscrupulous but seriously questions the value of vulnerable human lives.
So where does Mr. Latimer fit in all of this? I confess that my considerable sympathy for this man and his predicament—for I think that society bears some responsibility for the bind that Mr. Latimer felt himself in; but that is a subject for another article—has been tempered by the comments of a number of organizations for the handicapped and the voice of one wheelchair-bound person who said simply, “Mr. Latimer got what he deserved.” There was no joy or retributive satisfaction in this voice. There was the realistic appraisal that Mr. Latimer had not only ended Tracy’s life without her request, but he had made the lives of all the handicapped that much more dependent upon the reasoning of others.
None of us can judge the heart of Mr. Latimer. None of us has walked in his shoes. But our law must protect all of us, and especially the most vulnerable, or we will begin the subtle process of making distinctions among human beings which mean that some are less equal than others.