Disabled fear for lives as mercy killing gains acceptance

Ottawa Citizen, January 8, 1997

The Latimer Watch began as a voice for the disabled because Robert Latimer became a minor hero, a good father, a guy in a tough spot, a sad sod who offed his disabled daughter, Tracy, with carbon monoxide as she squirmed in the front seat of his truck.

A newsletter, it was meant to be a one-cause crusade, but there is always a new reason to pull another issue together. Put out by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, the Latimer Watch documents what seems to be the growing acceptance of so-called mercy killing in this country, and the growing dread among the disabled.

Read an issue. You will have to wash fear off your hands.

Take the issue that arrived, as any press release might, in the mail a few weeks ago, headlined "Andrea Halpin Murdered by Father."

Halpin, 35, labeled mentally handicapped, was shot dead by her father last November. He then killed himself.

The newsletter describes how Halpin from St. Laurent, Quebec, enjoyed eating out, trips to the mall and weekly appointments to get her hair done. She attended school and had been in a job training program.

"She had a life very similar to that of many Canadians," it says.

"Another Child Murdered," screams another issue. "Last week, Danielle Blais drowned her 6-year-old son, Charles, in a bathtub. Charles was autistic."

Blais, of Montreal, tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide after the child died and has been charged with first-degree murder. She is receiving treatment for depression.

She was portrayed by the mainstream media as a loving mother who reached her breaking point. That is most surely true, but that means her support system was inadequate, not that a bathtub should have been filled with water.

Another newsletter carried a poignant passage in the form of an open letter to Canadians.

"We, as people with disabilities, are afraid for our lives. We are afraid that others could be empowered to decide whether we live or die. We are afraid to be in a society which weighs the severity of a child's disability in its judgment of whether and how to judge the actions of her murderer."

One of the newsletter's founders, Laurie Beachell, says people just like those who were killed sit on his board of directors.

He tries to explain the fear that these killings—and the way society has painted the killers—has caused.

Latimer was viewed sympathetically, while his daughter Tracy was portrayed as nothing more than a wounded animal ready to be put down. Latimer's case is under appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada and there is a grassroots movement to get him a new trial and a lighter sentence. Instead of being in prison, he is under house arrest.

Contrast this with Susan Smith, in the United States, who is serving life in prison for killing her two children in North Carolina and almost got the death penalty.

Beachell says, in this era of cuts, many with disabilities are wondering when someone with more power—a doctor, caregiver or relative—will decide their time has come.

The federal government is also making moves to change the way people die.

This is welcomed by many of us who feel we have the right to choose how we die, even if we can't take our lives with our own hand. But for many disabled, the Liberal policies are scary, showing the mood endangering the disabled doesn't spring only from the grassroots.

There is a government bill before the Senate that protects health-care providers from criminal liability when they withhold or withdraw life-sustaining medical treatment at the request of a patient or patient's representative, or administer pain-relieving medication to alleviate a patients' pain in dosages that may shorten life.

Earlier, a Senate committee considered a special category of crime called "compassionate homicide" that would carry a lighter sentence. The Liberal party has also passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of assisted suicide.

These moves have the disabled worried that one day soon there won't be enough safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable, or those who have difficulty making their wishes known.

"We literally feel we are fighting for our lives," says Traci Walters, national director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres, who welcomes each issue of the newsletter she receives.

Strangely, the issues that fill the pages of the Latimer Watch get very little coverage in the mainstream.

So the newsletter has this underground quality to it passed among disabled people as though it were a subversive manifesto.

For more information, contact the CCD headquarters, at Suite 926-294 Portage Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3C 0B9. Tel: 204-947-0303 in Winnipeg. Canadian Independent Living Centres can be reached at 613-563-2581.