SPECIAL REPORT

TURNING WORDS INTO ACTION

A WRITER CAMPAIGNS FOR CHOICE

D’ARCY JENISH February 24 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

TURNING WORDS INTO ACTION

A WRITER CAMPAIGNS FOR CHOICE

D’ARCY JENISH February 24 1992

TURNING WORDS INTO ACTION

A WRITER CAMPAIGNS FOR CHOICE

Debilitating diseases and prolonged suffering had eroded their will to live. But death by natural causes appeared to be only a distant prospect. On a December night in 1990, Charles LeMoir, 87, and his 80-year-old wife, Margaret, strapped themselves together with a belt and jumped from a 14th-storey apartment in Victoria. LeMoir, a former Vancouver firefighter, was suffering from cancer, heart problems, failing eyesight and chronic headaches. His wife, who was also losing her sight, suffered from advanced osteoporosis—a painful and crippling deterioration of the bones. Their double suicide went almost unnoticed by the media and the general public. But it made a lasting impression on John Hofsess, a writer who had quit a $58,000-a-year public relations job in Toronto and moved to Victoria in November, 1989, to care for his ailing 80-year-old mother, Gladys. Hofsess said that the joint suicide of the LeMoirs inspired him to form the Right to Die Society of Canada, to lobby for the legalization of suicide assisted by another individual and for physician-assisted death. “I decided it wasn’t enough to write about this

issue,” said Hofsess. “I had to do something.” The 54-year-old Hofsess, who has written for numerous American and Canadian publications, including Maclean ’s from 1970 to 1975, said that he is prepared to devote at least a decade to a campaign to change Canada’s Criminal Code and make euthanasia legal. He has the support of a group of high-profile advisers, including B.C. NDP MP Svend Robinson, Saskatchewan NDP MP Christopher Axworthy and Derek Humphry, founder of the 57,000-member National Hemlock Society, a Eugene, Ore.-based organization that aggressively promotes the individual’s right to die. Declared Humphry, who addressed Right to Die’s founding convention in Victoria last September: “We thoroughly support Hofsess because he is on our wavelength. You’ve got to fight for what you believe in.”

According to Hofsess, his first challenge is to turn the fledgling 1,100-member Right to Die Society into an effective national lobbying organization. But he concedes that his society will be competing for members with Torontobased Dying With Dignity, which was founded in 1980 and currently has 6,500 members

across the country. That organization’s executive director, Marilynne Seguin, said that it advocates individuals having the right to choose to die, but takes a different approach and uses different tactics than Right to Die. Said Seguin: “They see us as a wimp group because we don’t hold plastic-bag parties to teach people how to off themselves.” Rational: Seguin said that Dying With Dignity relies on a “calm, rational approach” and is attempting to persuade, rather than shock, the public. She said that any legislative changes aimed at making euthanasia legal must be acceptable to the broadest spectrum of the Canadian public, not just pro-euthanasia advocates. She added that the organization would support physician-assisted suicide only if the law contained strong safeguards to protect doctors and ensured that patients genuinely wanted to end their lives. As well, she said that g it has worked extensively with the Canadian 1 Medical Association, the Canadian Bar Association and other professional groups that have attempted to develop policies on euthanasia.

But Hofsess maintains that Canadian advocates of euthanasia must be more aggressive, and that they need a stronger voice if they hope to achieve their goals. He added that last spring, when he decided to form his own organization, he called Humphry for advice. Hofsess said that he was astonished to learn that almost 1,000 Canadians belonged to the Hemlock Society, and many of them wanted Humphry to expand to Canada. Hemlock spends about $330,000 annually on political campaigns in various states aimed at legalizing doctor-assisted suicide. Said Humphry: “There have been constant demands by Canadians to have a Hemlock Society in Canada. We’ve always said no because we have enough to do here.”

Although his organization is barely she months old, Hofsess is quickly distinguishing it from Dying With Dignity. On Nov. 7, he and Scott Wallace, a retired Victoria doctor who supports euthanasia, appeared before a special parliamentary committee in Ottawa to comment on a private member’s bill introduced by B.C. Conservative MP Robert Wenman. The bill would allow patients to refuse medical treatment and let doctors withhold treatment from terminally ill patients. While supporting the intent of the bill, Hofsess and Wallace insisted that much stronger and clearer language was required to protect the rights of the dying. Added Hofsess: “Dying With Dignity supports the bill unreservedly, which we regard as politically and legally naive.”

But Canada’s newest pro-euthanasia advocate insists that his real adversary is the country’s medical profession. Hofsess said that many doctors devote all their effort to extending life, regardless of the patient’s suffering or quality of life. Said Hofsess: “The medical profession has not come to grips with the fact that people die. People are turning to us because they want an honest dialogue.” And Right to Die seems determined to see that the message is heard.

D’ARCY JENISH