(Picture: L-R: Mike Schouten, his late son Marcus, and his wife Jennifer just after Marcus’ high school graduation in 2021. Mike Schouten donned his late son’s jacket when he urged the AMAD committee to protect minors from assisted suicide.
The final presentation to the special joint parliamentary/ senate committee on medical assistance in dying (AMAD) (Nov 2022) – made by one of Canada’s leading pro-life advocates – was a strong call to offer better medical help to the suffering rather than more access to euthanasia.
Mike Schouten, director of We Need a Law (a longstanding anti-abortion initiative) and director of advocacy for the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada, together with his wife Jennifer, made the appeal based on the excellent palliative care given to their 18-year-old son Markus before his passing this spring.
Euthanasia access “leads to despair”
Schouten argued compellingly that to offer euthanasia to minors considered eligible increases the trauma for all such minors and their families: “By giving some minors the right to request, you put all minors and their families into a position where they are obliged to consider.”
Schouten said that if Markus had been offered euthanasia, “the message heard would have been clear: we don’t think your life is worth living and if you want, we can end it for you.”
That message, when given by authority figures such as parents or doctors to their dying children, “leads to despair – and that despair will lead to more requests for MAiD,” said Schouten.
Candid details of final hours of son’s life
Schouten and his wife Jennifer lost their 18-year-old son only 15 months after his diagnosis of Ewing sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. The couple’s candid sharing of the final days of their son’s life gave a very personal, informed insight into an issue that often attracts a shallow rehearsing of political slogans on freedom of choice.
Mike Schouten’s wide knowledge of life issues in his dual director roles helped him to articulate a clear defense for end-of-life care as well as to field pointed questions from committee members following the presentation.
Jennifer Schouten recounted the details of Markus’ final days. Markus was brought to Canuck Place Children’s Hospice. Doctors expected him to pass that evening. As Markus’s siblings said good night to him, recalled Jennifer, he “told them he loved them, and said, ‘See you in paradise.’”
“This is how I hoped it would be”
That night, she and Mike stayed at Markus’ bedside. He “assured us that he was very comfortable and not in any pain,” said Jennifer, adding that at one point Markus told her, “This is how I hoped it would be.”
Then came the dawn and, unexpectedly, another day for Markus. Marcus awoke and spent precious time with his parents, siblings, and grandparents. Markus’s friends arrived at the hospice and together they “cried, laughed, and prayed,” said Jennifer. On Sunday afternoon, she said, Marcus “took his final, peaceful breaths.”
Euthanasia “eliminates beautiful experiences”
In his presentation, Mike stated that, if euthanasia is extended to minors, “the day will come when families just like ours, sitting with their dying children, will feel an obligation to end the suffering of their child by having a doctor euthanize him or her.” And such euthanasia “eliminates unimaginably beautiful experiences,” said Schouten.
If euthanasia become available to minors, then when the Schoutens expected Markus to pass, euthanasia could easily have seemed like the right action. Schouten imagined the scenario: “’It’s time,’ the nurse would say. ‘It’s the compassionate thing to do. You’ve all said your goodbyes. He doesn’t have to suffer anymore. He should go now,’ the nurse would say.
“But then, we wouldn’t have had Saturday, a most beautiful day filled with precious memories. He would have missed out on all those beautiful experiences,” said Schouten.
Questions press for death as a valid choice
Members of the committee repeatedly pressed Schouten to consider requests for MAiD for a dying child by other families as an equal and valid choice. At times the question and answer period seemed like the cross-examination of a defendant in a court trial, accused of the crime of challenging the view that every family with a dying child should be offered euthanasia.
Liberal MP René Arsenault, declaring that in some countries a child’s decision to end his or her life would take precedence over the decision of the parents, asked the Schoutens, “What age should be a cutoff for such decisions?”
The question subtly urged the Schoutens to allow euthanasia for at least mature minors. Mike Schouten’s careful answer precluded that option: “Everyone around Markus valued his life and dignity. We can give everyone dignity so that the request to die does not need to be there.”
“Focus on living well” gave hope
“Perspective is everything,” Schouten told the committee. “If the perspective is, ‘This suffering will get worse,’ it leads to despair. But if the perspective is, ‘Focus on living every day well,’ that perspective does not lead to despair,” said Schouten.
Schouten praised the quality of care his son received at BC Children’s Hospital and Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, where medical staff monitored his son’s needs daily, then hourly, then by the minute. With such care, Schouten said, “Requests for euthanasia don’t happen.”
Schouten said the palliative care given to children, including his son, is “far superior” to that offered to adults.
NDP MP Alistair MacGregor, referring to the BC Infants Act (2.16) which allows a child to refuse medical treatment, asked Schouten, “How is that different from a child choosing the time and space of their passing?” Schouten responded, “When you make MAiD available to minors, you put families into the situation of having to consider ending the child’s life. That doesn’t sound like autonomy to me.”
Doctors, families “obliged” to consider MAiD
Senator Pamela Wallin took issue with Schouten’s statement that, if euthanasia for minors were legalized, all families would be “obliged to consider MAiD.”
“Did any healthcare professional ever say, ‘You must do this, you have an obligation? MAiD is about choice. If you choose not to access MAiD, no one will ever challenge you,” said Wallin.
Schouten responded that the word “obliged” comes from a guidance document for health care professionals produced by Canada’s providers of euthanasia. The report, entitled “Bringing up MAiD as a clinical care option,” declares that physicans and nurse practitioners “have a professional obligation to initiate a discussion about MAiD” with patients considered eligible.
Schouten pointed out that if health care professionals are “obliged” to offer euthanasia to all eligible patients, including minors, then families of all dying children will be “obliged” to consider it.
“You called me here to hear my testimony”
Wallin further contended that to offer MAiD to a patient “is not saying, ‘Your life is not worth living.’ That is not the message I’m hearing.” Wallin, in her comment, positioned herself as a patient receiving such an offer.
Schouten, in his response, shifted the focus from Wallin’s projected response to being offered MAiD and directed her attention instead to an accurate hearing of his message: “I would implore you to be open to that message. The impact of the law is far greater than you may think.”
After a slate of questions that pressed Schouten to allow euthanasia for at least some minors, Schouten reminded committee members that the purpose of the hearings is for persons with expertise to offer input to the committee to help them draft a report. He pointed out, “You called me here to hear my testimony. If you want to hear others’ experiences, I suggest you ask them.”
Euthanasia is “giving up on people”
Committee members, in their questions, showed the “persistent view that MAiD does not impact anyone except the people who choose it,” said Schouten in an interview after his presentation. “They negate to see how choices are not happening in a bubble,” he said. Schouten said that euthanasia is “growing exponentially” because of the impact of the message it sends to patients. “It really is giving up on people,” he said. Patients “quickly feel like a burden and think that the only way out is euthanasia.”
“Oh, sure, the doctors are not forcing them to access it, but they are forcing them to consider it,” said Schouten. In so doing, said Schouten, doctors are saying, “’In our professional opinion, your life has no value.’”
“The whole aspect of safeguards is not in [the committee members’] minds anymore,” said Schouten. He noted that in 2016, when Bill C-14 was passed (the amendment to the criminal code that allowed medical assistance in dying), “Everyone was talking about safeguards: it would only be offered to a very small minority whose sufferings were beyond what they could endure, who had only a few hours left to live.”
Now, “nearly all safeguards are going,” noted Schouten.
Better palliative care needed
Better medical care could remove requests for euthanasia for people of any age, suggested Schouten. He said palliative care must be offered far earlier – as it was to his son Markus, at six months into his treatment – so that patients are assured of quality care to the very end of their lives.
“Canadians are waking up” to the crisis of the expansion of euthanasia, said Schouten. “People are asking, what are we doing here? When people can’t afford housing or have PTSD and are offered MAiD – that, for many people, is alarming.”
A little-discussed effect of the rise of euthanasia is that there is “not as much desire or will” to find cures for terminal diseases, observed Schouten. He mentioned that Markus’ final words whispered to his oncologist had been, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Euthanasia target groups “now speaking up”
With both lived experience of his son’s passing, as well as years of professional experience directing advocacy for ARPA Canada as well as directing the We Need a Law campaign, Schouten has a privileged vantage point from which to compare current debates on abortion and euthanasia.
Defendants of abortion and euthanasia both “rest the whole argument on autonomy, without realizing that our personal decisions affect people beyond us,” said Schouten.
One difference between the two forms of killing is that, with abortion, “all the victims are gone. We can never hear them.” By contrast, with euthanasia, “many people who are suffering are now starting to speak up and say, ’I don’t appreciate being offered’ euthanasia,” said Schouten.
Contact Committee and MPs
Schouten says he hopes his family’s positive experience with palliative care will encourage other families facing suffering. He also prays his testimony will compel members of the AMAD committee to recommend that government hold the line on forbidding euthanasia for minors.
ARPA Canada is urging Canadians to email their MPs and members of the AMAD committee to urge them to forbid euthanasia for minors. Their “Easy Mail” site (https://easymail.arpacanada.ca/welcome/) provides sample letters; it also sends emails to your MP as well as to all committee members with one click.
Campaign Life (https://www.campaignlifecoalition.com/petition/id/57) is hosting an online petition against infant euthanasia.
The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPCC), together with Citizen Go, has launched an online petition (https://citizengo.org/en-ca/207535-no-child-euthanasia-canada) against euthanasia for mature minors. The EPCC is also hosting a postcard campaign to MPs to oppose euthanasia of infants. To order cards for a local campaign, please call the EPCC at 1-877-439-3348 or email email@example.com.
By Irene-Grace Bom