Although forming part of the Dystopian future narrative so commonplace in pre-‘Star Wars’ sci-fi films of the 1970s, ‘Logan’s Run’, the 1976 movie starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter, contains an element in its storyline that is both telling of the era in which it was produced and prescient to where we are now. The citizens of the sealed society housed within a self-contained dome to keep them safe from the polluted air outdoors receive an implant in the palm of their left hands as babies; this implant changes colour as they age and when it begins to blink as they approach 30, they are forced to undergo voluntary euthanasia in an elaborate ceremony attended by crowds in a manner recalling a sporting occasion. At the time the film was made, 30 was viewed as a key cut-off point in a pop culture still trading on the Bright Young Things of the 60s, all of whom were remarkably creative individuals whilst in their 20s – and many of whom died before they made it to 30; 30 being the age at which citizens are deemed over-the-hill and therefore need to be ‘renewed’ seems logical for the era.
However, it is not only the presence of a dubious inorganic implant that sits uneasily in a present day that often speaks in all seriousness about the alleged ‘benefits’ of such implants; the euthanasia aspect of the movie – and the normalisation of the subject – is another element that is a little closer to home today than it was in the mid-70s. Switzerland has been promoting its controversial Dignitas clinic and its assisted suicide programme for the last 25 years, though it has strict criteria for potential patients, requiring sound judgement and the ability to take one’s own life – and it has to be said the majority of those who fork-out for a one-way ticket to Zurich are usually suffering from terminal illnesses that would otherwise result in a long, slow and painful death few would deny them release from. Since its formation in 1998, over 3,000 people have chosen the Dignitas method, capitalising on the fact that Switzerland is – along with Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands – one of the few countries in Europe to legalise voluntary euthanasia. A small handful of other countries in the world have also introduced a ‘right-to-die’ system, including Canada, which is now officially the world leader in assisted suicide, accounting for 3.3% of the country’s deaths.
Dignitas does accept sufferers of severe mental illness who wish to end their own lives, though such cases tend to be in the minority, and – depending on the severity of the patient’s condition – can present a more problematic scenario in determining whether the volunteer is sufficiently of sound mind to make such a judgement alone. The issue of mental illness has also recently surfaced in the proposed extensions to Canada’s own euthanasia programme, with many feeling the assisted suicide legislation is moving a little too fast for its own good as it is repeatedly sold as yet another ‘progressive’ policy of a kind that the administration of Monsieur Trudeau is seemingly obsessed with inflicting on its people. And, let’s be honest, the thought of a government legislating for those with a psychological sickness to be ‘put to sleep’ is a little too, shall we say, Nazi Germany for most to stomach.
Unlike the Nazi euthanasia industry, which selected physically and mentally disabled inmates of institutions for the treatment mainly because they were viewed as a blot on the Third Reich’s ideal of Aryan perfection and had no say in the matter, Canada’s right-to-die business plan emphasises choice is paramount and nobody would ever be put to sleep against their will as part of some mass social cleansing scheme. The motivations for the programme are sold as a compassionate and humane way of ending unnecessary suffering, though it has to be noted that many of those responsible for Nazi Germany’s programme made similar claims when forced to answer for their crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. Naturally, nobody is making a case for Canada’s assisted suicide system as being a reincarnation of the Nazi blueprint, but it does seem to be widening the net of qualification a tad too wide for some.
In Canada, there is already a worrying trend for state-sponsored suicide to come across as a virtual ‘lifestyle choice’ for those who are confronted by poverty and economic hardship, with euthanasia viewed by some as an option when life doesn’t appear to offer anything worth living for. Stories of volunteers for MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) who are struggling on the breadline, often afflicted by conditions that aren’t life-threatening but aren’t deemed serious enough to warrant sympathetic help from the state, have increased in recent months. Many doctors and psychiatrists in Canada are concerned that some patients experiencing a rough patch in their lives are being seduced by the idea of euthanasia as a panacea for their problems. With a poll last year reporting that a third of Canadians are facing mental health difficulties probably intensified by the country’s excessive Covid restrictions, perhaps it’s no surprise that euthanasia is increasingly regarded as an alternative; after all, one of the hallmarks of clinical depression, for instance, is that the sufferer has a job on perceiving any glimmer of light at the end of the dark tunnel. For those who can’t afford expensive psychiatric treatment from a decent therapist who can convince them the black clouds aren’t permanent, assisted suicide can appear attractive.
Of course, suicide can be viewed as the only way out of a crippling social situation such as loneliness or depression by many without the need for an official government programme to do the job on their behalf; but concerns over the proposed expansions of MAID even from doctors who actually work within the system and perform assisted suicides is growing. Dr Madeline Li, a Toronto-based psychiatrist, says ‘Making death too ready a solution disadvantages the most vulnerable people and actually lets society off the hook; I don’t think death should be society’s solution for its own failures’, whilst Marie-Claud Landry, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, says ‘Leaving people to make the choice to die because the state is failing to fulfil their fundamental human rights is unacceptable’. Indeed, one Canadian newspaper has referred to the trend as ‘opt-in eugenics’.
In the case of the disabled and mentally ill, plans to expand the criteria for MAID have also met criticism from UN human rights experts, three of whom put their criticisms in writing to Canada’s federal government, suggesting the plans risked planting the idea in the heads of the disabled that death was a preferable substitute for disability. A story emerged last year that a Canadian war veteran and paralympian requested a wheelchair ramp be installed in her home, only to be offered the choice of assisted suicide as an alternative by a Veteran’s Affairs case worker – the fourth such disabled veteran the case worker suggested this to. All of these factors have raised public awareness of the planned extension of the voluntary euthanasia laws and have led to a pause in progress in order to allow further consultation with the medical profession; but the pause may only be temporary as abandoning the plans could be regarded as legally unconstitutional. That’s the problem when such a questionable human right is enshrined in law.
Revelations of the financial benefits for the Canadian healthcare system also cast a somewhat sinister shadow across the issue; a 2020 report by the Canadian government found $13,000 per euthanized patient had been saved under the original criteria for MAID qualification – i.e. sufferers of a terminal illness; the report estimated the plans to extend the criteria to include those not suffering from a terminal condition (far higher in number) could increase individual savings to as much as $50,000. Voluntary euthanasia will always inevitably be a contentious area with the ever-ready potential for abuse, and needs to be approached with caution; but in the rush to gratify every clamour for human rights that comes with the domino effect of appeasing each separate group in turn, Canada risks taking a ‘progressive’ step too far.
© The Editor