Last Wednesday, I attended a well-organized public philosophy lecture at the University of Lethbridge Author Gary Bauslaugh discussed the findings in his book, Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy.
Given that I'm an Anglican who opposes euthanasia, and Mr. Bauslaugh, is a humanist who believes mercy-killing is a compassionate choice, it's not surprising we disagree on whether Robert Latimer acted properly in killing his daughter, Tracy.
I admit, I was annoyed when I left the lecture, feeling that Gary had dismissed opposing views, including my book Eugenics and the Firewall:Canada's Nasty Little Secret. Foolishly, I blew off a bit of steam in a private email outlining my perspective. Somehow, my email got posted online on a US website No excuses, I should know better than to write chatty, bitchy emails to friends who are journalists.
(I will add that the author of the post in question risks her own paycheque supporting my work, which challenges the political views of many of her readers. She does this because she believes Alberta's eugenics scandal should not be hidden to protect any political or religious view. Without Denyse, my book would never have been finished because I was convinced Alberta publishers wouldn't touch the subject and out of province royalty publishers wouldn't read a manuscript from Jane in Lethbridge, Alberta.)
Gary read the post. Off course he was upset, but to his credit, he emailed me directly with his concerns. (I appreciate that.) I am pleased to say this unfortunate situation started a dialogue between Gary Bauslaugh and me, that I think is quite productive. And, as a fellow writer, I will defend Gary's right to express his views even when they are the opposite of mine. That's the Canadian way!
So, here's what Gary had to say about his position:
Gary on Religious and Disabled Groups Impacting Public Policy:
"It is not that such groups ought not to have a voice, it is that voice should be kept in perspective by politicians and judges who may be influenced by the volume, rather than the quality, of comments they get on controversial issues. What I actually said was that there is a "need to ensure that certain advocacy groups, with particular axes to grind, and religious groups who abide by particular and arbitrary readings of religious scriptures, do not unduly affect public policy."
My point was that it is unfortunate if vocal minorities have undue influence on public policy, and that the solution to this was that other groups, representing the majority of opinion in Canada, need to speak up more, not that the minorities are to be somehow suppressed. My example related on the one hand to the Latimer SCC hearing, in which 11 groups hostile to Latimer spoke up, while only one spoke in his favour, while in fact about 75% of all Canadians are supportive of him. I related this as well to the evident difficulty of getting more rational policy developed on end-of-life issues, where similarly disproportionately negative, ideological and religious lobbying occurs whenever the issue comes up. I don't want to stop this lobbying, but to counterbalance it by hearing more from representatives of alternative views.
Gary took the time to add more explanation when I pressed him on the issue of allowing interest groups to intervene in court proceedings:
"I guess I have still not made my position clear. I am not objecting to having interveners of any sort, in fact I strongly support the right to participate in our democracy in that way. My comments are directed to getting more groups to respond to issues in that way, not fewer. My concern is that particularly vocal ones steal the stage, and more moderate and reasonable ones, often representing a large majority as in the Latimer case just don't bother. This creates a distorted picture of reality for legislators and the judiciary. The solution is not to try limit interveners but to encourage more liberal groups to provide a more realistic balance of views and to step in and argue for what they believe,"
Gary acknowledges that the audience may have interpreted his comments differently:
"That is what I was arguing for, although as Trudy pointed out in the session, my comments were open to misinterpretation. I have always stoutly defended the idea of pluralism, and freedom of expression, and strongly and frequently endorsed that position in the magazine I edited. This is a position I hold so strongly that I was probably not careful enough, for an audience that did not know me, in expressing my view on interveners in a way that could have been taken in a way not intended."
On Latimer's Conviction:
"The case is a simple straightforward one: he deliberately ended the life of his daughter, something that is classified as murder in our Criminal Code. This is a case that for which the only real defence was to urge the jury to refuse to convict in spite of his evident guilt, which is why I talked about the issue and problem of jury nullification in Canada. (Note: I was pleased to see that Gary welcomes those supportive and opposed to Latimer's stance to his site.)
Gary does not feel he treated all the Crown Prosecutors with disdain.
"I did so with the prosecutor in the first trial, but so did the Supreme Court of Canada when it ordered a retrial of Latimer based on that Prosecutor's behaviour. I said nothing negative about the second prosecutor, Neufeld, who for the most part behaved in a dignified and reasonable manner. I even quoted his positive comment about Latimer's act being a compassionate one."
On Parole Boards:
You were right about my concern about Parole Boards, but I thought that the readings made a persuasive case for such concern.
On the Audience:
You were right as well to criticize me for getting annoyed with certain questions, including yours. It was not, though, that they were "hard" questions; rather they represented a world view that I find very difficult to swallow, though I certainly should do so with more grace. (Being a writer, I understand this was his first stop on his tour. Nobody does the first stop perfectly. Overall, the event went very well. The readings, performed by Gary's wife, Gwyneth Evans,were excellent, too.)
On the dangers to the vulnerable:
Your views linking eugenics with euthanasia is one I have heard before, and makes the basic error of equating state-run eugenics policies, which drastically interfere with personal freedom, with proposed new laws on euthanasia, which embrace and enhance personal freedom.
I do think there are ways of protecting the vulnerable and still permit assisted suicide and euthanasia. Various people have proposed such laws, including one by bioethicist Eike Kluge that appears on my web site ethics-euthanasia.ca
(While I don't trust the Public Guardian, families, cash strapped governmens or health systems to protect the rights of the vulnerable or ensure `consent; Gary believes these are issues that can be overcome. I appreciate his willingness to acknowledge that his could become an issue, especially in light of events in which seemingly civilized people violated the civil rights of the vulnerable: Canada and Australia's residential school history (the post-confederation government run schools on the prairies, modelled on proposals of US eugenicists, by the way), the Sexual Sterilization disaster in Alberta, Apartheid in South Afria, Hitler's euthanasia law.)
Gary's New Area of Research:
"You might be interested to know that one of my next projects is to work on something about a different group of vulnerable people - those in prison. I was stunned by how unfairly and harshly the Parole Board treated Latimer. I wonder how often that sort of thing goes on, and hope to do some more investigation of it, and of other ways prisoners may be mistreated. It seems like once they are convicted of a crime they lose rights even to basic fairness, largely because no one cares about them anymore.
(Now here's an area where I think Gary is 100% right!)
The Take Away:
Gary (a humanist) and I (a fairly conservative Anglican raised by evangelical parents in Manning country) found an important point of agreement by discussing our differences. I think that is a hopeful sign.
I've been watching Canadian public debate over the past few years: the abortion debate, the ID/Evolution debate, athiest versus evangelical, left versus right, unions versus management, environmentalist versus oil worker. It seems to me traditionally respectful Canadians have been convinced that listening to (even acknowledging your opponent is a valuable human being) is wimpy. Instead, speakers on church pulpits, university podiums and even Parliament take an aggressive attitude borrowed from the United States.(It doesn't appear to work down there, either.) We talk at other rather than to each other. We shout, demonizing our opponents, and make zero progress solving our problems.
We blog to people who think like us and boost our egos. We buy books by authors who back up our own view of the world. We watch the television network that suits our political view. And, often, we demonize those on the other side of the political, ideological, religious, or social spectrum. We feel good, but we learn nothing.
The luxury (and poverty) of 21st century living (and the internet) lets us build intellectual walls disregarding and dehumanizing neighbours who do not share our world view. The result, an increasingly toxic dialogue in politics, science, and the arts.
What we do disagree about should be discussed openly and respectfully. If we do that, we'll likely find points of agreement to move society forward. For example, I was really pleased to learn that Gary Bauslaugh is investigating the parole system in Canada.
I have no doubt that Gary will produce a book on the justice system Canadians need to read. And I hope Gary keeps us posted about his new project! (I hope humanists will consider what I have to say in Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada's Nasty Little Secret. Those who oppose Gary's view on euthanasia would also do well to at least check Robert Latimer: A Story of Justice and Mercy out of their local library.)
As for me, I'm mulling a personal memoir of the year I spent without a home. A year in which I saw first hand the injustices in employment, social benefits, hidden taxes, denial of civil rights, health care, and housing faced by the poor in oil rich Alberta.
How does My Year Rising Above the Bar, A Memoir of Semi-Homelessness in Alberta, sound for a book title? And should I put more opposing views up on this blog from time to time? What do you think?