Thursday, July 03, 2008

More Headlines..

Academic freedom and assisted suicide

This instructor wants to witness assisted suicide for his research. A fight is brewing over his right to do that.

Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun, Thursday, July 3, 2008

Canada's university professors are preparing to defend the right of a Metro Vancouver researcher to witness illegal assisted suicides in the name of increasing understanding of the right-to-die movement.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has formed a high-level committee to investigate claims that Kwantlen Polytechnic University sociologist Russel Ogden was unjustly denied the chance to research new techniques for assisted suicide.

"In the face of it, it looks as if there has been a violation of academic freedom," James Turk, executive director of the CAUT, said Wednesday in an interview from Ottawa.

The CAUT has formed what Turk call a "blue-ribbon committee" to look into why the Kwantlen administration is effectively blocking Ogden from researching assisted suicides, even after the university-college's ethics committee approved his research three years ago.

For more than 14 years, Ogden has engaged in controversial and ground-breaking research into scores of underground assisted suicides (often known as "Nu Tech deathing") by people dealing with AIDS, cancer and other terminal illnesses.

Ogden has frequently run into opposition from university administrators who fear their institutions could wind up in trouble for allowing him to possibly skirt the edges of the law.

In 2003, Ogden was awarded $143,000 in damages after it was determined that Britain's Exeter University had illicitly backed out of an agreement to protect the identities of scores of people Ogden found had taken part in illegal assisted suicides.

More recently, Ogden has discovered that more than 19 British Columbians have committed suicide through an increasingly widespread technique known as "helium in a bag."

Helium is seen as a swift, highly lethal and painless way to die without involving physicians or drugs. Helium is also nearly undetectable in toxicological probes.

The latest confrontation over Ogden's pioneering research techniques has arisen at the same time that assisted suicide has become big news in Washington state. Former Democratic governor Booth Gardner, who struggles with Parkinson's disease, is campaigning for a November ballot initiative on doctor-assisted euthanasia, which will go ahead if state supporters gather 225,000 signatures by today.

However, the CAUT worries that Ogden is being blocked from continuing legitimate research into the right-to-die movement by Kwantlen officials.

Despite receiving earlier ethics board approval, Ogden has since been told by Kwantlen's administration he cannot "engage in any illegal activity, including attending at an assisted death," says a CAUT letter written by Turk, which was addressed to eight academics and administrators. A copy was obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

Neither Ogden nor Kwantlen officials were available for comment Wednesday.

The CAUT's Turk maintains that, although assisted suicide is illegal in Canada (unlike in the state of Oregon, as well as the countries of Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands), it is neither illegal to commit suicide nor against the law to witness an assisted death in this country.

"Witnessing an illegal act, such as a husband murdering his wife, is not illegal behaviour on your part," Turk said.

Therefore, Turk said, it would not be illegal for Ogden to witness an assisted suicide, since he would be neither discouraging nor encouraging it.

It's important, Turk said, for academic researchers to be given the freedom to try to "understand politically unpopular behaviour." Even while a Canwest poll last year showed three-quarters of Canadians approve of assisted suicide, compared to 48 per cent of Americans, Turk said researchers like Ogden are being held back by university administrators "who might think the [federal] government is going to get mad at them."

The high-level CAUT committee that will review Ogden's case and issue its findings in a few months includes Kevin Haggerty, a sociologist at the University of Alberta; John McLaren, professor emeritus of law at the University of Victoria; and Lorraine Weir, an English professor at the University of B.C.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

The subject of euthanasia or assisted suicide is rift with controversy. The two sides would basically be Side one: All life is sacred. No one has the right to take the life of another regardless of the situation. All life is worthwhile, no one but G_d can determine its end. (This is usually backed by theological argument such as 10 commandments such as "thou shalt not kill" and others.)

Side 2 looks at the "right to choose" and is related to the experience of suffering, and the definition of "quality of life". Watching someone who is ill, who has constant pain and is able to do little more than lie in bed, may be alive by the aid of machines -- the definition of "quality of life" is subjective to the individual's experience. I had seen both sides as part of my work in health care chaplaincy. I have seen the family called to the bedside and told that this would be it, only to see the miracle of the patient to rally and continue living months or years more. I have also seen patients who are able to do little more than lie in bed, dependent on painkillers and oxygen or a machine to survive. Working in renal, I have even had discussions with patients who decide to cease treatment for their kidney failure. Often they have told me that it is the pain, the decline in their health, and the cessation of their perceived quality of life. After making this decision, and going to 'comfort care only" (meaning pain control but no 'heroic measures such as CPR or tube feed') I have met with patients who continue to survive for days or weeks. Some have asked 'why can't I die? When will this end?' I once told a man that I didn't know. (Often patients 'declare themselves', meaning they stop being aware of the world and their systems start to shut down. The body doesn't need or take in food or drink, their responses cease, and they begin the process of detaching from the world as they start the journey towards death.) I told the man that perhaps he wasn't done yet, that there might be something he was still to accomplish. I asked him to consider if he had unfinished business, if he still had a lesson to learn, or perhaps that he was to teach us something. This was not something he had considered...

The choice to live or die... not an easy one to make.

In the same paper, I found an article decrying the choice to award an Order of Canada to Dr. Morgentaler. Dr. Henry Morgentaler is best known for performing abortions illegally.

"Morgentaler is known for almost single-handedly pushing abortion rights on to the national agenda when he opened an illegal abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. At one point, he was jailed for 10 months when a lower court acquittal was overturned on appeal.

The issue culminated in a landmark ruling in January 1988, in which the Supreme Court struck down anti-abortion provisions of the Criminal Code on the grounds they violate a woman's constitutional right to "security of person." "Cassandra Drudi, Canwest News Service; With files from The Journal, National Post and Montreal Gazette Published: Wednesday, July 02

One side of the debate argues that giving him the order of Canada has been a long time in coming. He has fought for the rights of many women who had little or choice regarding unwanted pregnancies. The other side of the debate claims that he has chosen to act against morality, to "kill" or take a human life by aborting pregnancies.

It is easy to take sides when hearing a story. But it is difficult to know what we would want when it is our situation. I wonder how many people surprise themselves by chosing something that they swore they would never do. I remember when I used think more "black and white/right and wrong", in a box. People who smoked were bad, people who drank were bad, people who got divorced were wrong. In practicing theological reflection in my everyday work, I have changed some of my theology in the 17 years since I first started my theological training. I now think that divorce is not a "sin", but hope that it is the last resort. I would rather see 2 happy people apart, then 2 (or more as children and other family members are affected) unhappy people together. I would rather people learn to relate to one another and try to have dialogue rather than discriminate due to a difference of opinion about how to live, or what to think. I would rather see people who are able to respect the beliefs and customs of others, and in turn have their traditions respected and maybe enhanced due to the openness towards those things that are new, or "different" (i.e. weird, or not like us). I would rather see love, real love (not sexual but agape

In my work, it is my task as a chaplain to "come along side", to walk with the person in their journey as a support for them in their times of health and/or other difficulties. To remind them by my presence that God is present in the midst of their struggles and seeming chaos and that S/He does care. To do this, I provide a listening ear with no judgment about their choices. this is not always easy. I might personally think one thing, but do not express this to the person, as I do not know the life experiences and perspective that leads to this choice or stage of their living. The goal is to help them make choices that will honor the person that they are, to enhance their life experience, to meet the "person" that they are -- that God knows them to be. I really don't know until it is my situation and my story.

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