Disabled are not dogs


Tom Koch

Even severely handicapped children have a right to live life to potential.
Family members don't have the right to "put down" people.

bulletMany Canadians believe Robert Latimer's 10-year sentence for the murder of his daughter, Tracy, was too harsh, and that "mercy killing" is an idea whose time is now. In British Columbia, MP Sven Robinson and Vancouver Sun columnist Stan Persky have taken this position. Others insist a "mercy killing" law, or a royal pardon for Latimer, would endorse non-care for the fragile.

Working through the Supreme Court's judgment, they're probably right. Latimer supporters justify Tracy's murder because she had untreatable pain.

This isn't true, however. "There was evidence that Tracy could have been fed with a feeding tube into her stomach, an option that would have improved her nutrition and health," the justices wrote. This, they continued, "might also have allowed for more effective pain medication to be administered, but the accused and his wife [Laura] rejected this option."

"Had the Latimers not rejected the option of relying on a feeding tube," in short, the pain that drove Latimer to murder might have been managed.

Similarly, doctors said surgery removing Tracy's "upper thigh bone" would relieve the physical pain resulting from her hip dislocation, a complication resulting from her disease. But Latimer saw this as "mutilation," and killed his daughter instead.

A pardon for Latimer would say death is better than treatments like tube feeding and amputation, even when they save lives, relieve pain, and improve health.

In the same vein, two years before Tracy's murder, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a new procedure to relieve the "spasticity" of patients like Tracy. It involved using an "intrathical pump" to deliver controlled doses of medication directly into the spinal fluid. We know, too, it was in use in Vancouver in 1993. We don't know if anyone suggested this approach in the Latimer case -- or if Robert Latimer would have accepted it -- because it is easier to talk about mercy, and mercy killing, than it is to deal with the messy details of patient care.

Finally, the month before Tracy was killed her parents decided not to place her in a group home where she could have received the care she needed.  Provinces fund such institutions not only for patients, but for families who can't cope. Pardoning Latimer says, "Better to be gassed than to enter a skilled care facility." Tell that to Granny when she thinks about a retirement home.

But the Senate select committee on euthanasia advocated a lesser charge than murder in difficult cases, Latimer supporters argue. They forget the committee also said that was to be considered only after first-rate palliative (pain management) treatment and care have been exhausted. They weren't here. Latimer rejected them.

Those who seek mercy for Latimer and minimal penalties for others like him sometimes argue: "Hey, we put down our beloved pets. Why not our loved ones as well?"

The answer is Canadians value their relatives and neighbours more than their pets. We therefore protect our citizens more carefully than the lives of cats, dogs, and parakeets. One reason we have a national health care system is to ensure everyone gets the treatment they need to live the best life they can.

Still, some say Tracy wasn't worth saving. Persky, for example, argues she was "without any prospect of a meaningful future." She was physically restricted and had the mental level of a four-year old. This is supposed to make her murder okay.

To say Tracy Latimer's murder wasn't important because her life was meaningless is to say the lives of the different are no lives at all. Unless one believes everyone who is developmentally and physically challenged has a meaningless future, who is to say her future was without merit? Can you draw the line that will say these lives are meaningful and those are not? I can't.

Finally, some argue Latimer shouldn't be treated like a common murderer because his motives were good. Since he's unlikely to kill again, what purpose is served by his incarceration?

The answer is simple. "Mercy" for Bob Latimer would give other relatives permission to kill their dependents without undue concern for the consequences. Arguing Latimer's sentence is "cruel and unusual" would say there is indeed little difference between putting down the fragile child (or parent, or spouse) and the family pet.

Latimer's 10-year sentence says parents, spouses and siblings don't have life-and-death powers over dependent persons. Offer Latimer "mercy" and you withdraw it from the fragile, whose lives may be forfeit as a result.

To pardon him would be to say anyone can put down a son, daughter, or spouse just as you would arthritic, half-blind old Fido.

Tom Koch is an author and lecturer who writes extensively on medical ethics. Recent books include Age Speaks for Itself and The Limits of Principle.

CHN wishes to than Tom Koch for permission to post his article "Disabled are not dogs.

  To visit Tom Koch's web site, go to: http://kochworks.com/

For inquiries regarding his article, or other questions, email Tom Koch mailto:tokoch@attglobal.net 

Disabled are not dogs by Tom Koch first appeared in the Vancouver Sun with the following byline:

 Many Canadians believe Robert Latimer's 10-year sentence for the murder of his daughter, Tracy, was too harsh, and that "mercy killing" is an idea whose time is now. In British Columbia, MP Sven Robinson and Vancouver Sun columnist Stan Persky have taken this position.




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