CANADA

AIDS `mercy killings'

An activist says he helped eight men die

GREG W. TAYLOR July 16 1990
CANADA

AIDS `mercy killings'

An activist says he helped eight men die

GREG W. TAYLOR July 16 1990

AIDS `mercy killings'

An activist says he helped eight men die

For vid Vancouver-based Lewis, the pattern AIDS became counsellor routine, Dabut never easy. On eight different occasions, Lewis recounted last week, he helped AIDS-infected male friends take lethal doses of prescription drugs. Lewis, 38, who has AIDS himself, told Maclean’s that he bought the drugs after they had been prescribed by the victims’ physicians. One man died in a hospital. The rest chose to die at home. But Lewis described all eight of the victims as weak and emaciated by the ravages of their disease. With no hope of recovery, he added, “they were begging to die.” And despite the fact that assisting a person to die is illegal, Lewis defiantly declared: “People at that terminal phase in their life should be able to say, ‘It is enough. I don’t want to suffer anymore. I want to die.’ To refuse to help them would be criminal.”

Lewis’s candor set off an immediate debate over the legal and moral implications of his actions. While advocates and critics of the practice of euthanasia—so-called mercy killing—took predictably opposing stances, Lewis’s decision to help the eight men commit suicide also divided those involved in helping victims of the fatal AIDS virus. Although some AIDS workers approved wholeheartedly of Lewis’s actions,

others said that the victims may have been deprived of their lives during intense—but transitory—bouts of suicidal depression.

However debatable Lewis’s actions may have been, though, there was evidence that they were far from unique. One survey, conducted by Cornell University Medical School in Ithaca, N.Y., in February, 1988, revealed that men infected with AIDS were 36 times more likely than average males to commit suicide. More significantly, the same study found that AIDS patients were far more likely to choose to end their lives than were men with other fatal diseases. And in Vancouver, which has the country's highest concentration of AIDS victims, Lewis declared that he knew of other instances in which suicides took place with the assistance of other people. Said Lewis: “I am hardly alone. I know dozens of people here who responded to similar wishes. The only difference is I’m talking about it.”

Some AIDS activists plainly shared Lewis’s view that the terminally ill have the moral right to decide when to die—and that others have the moral right to help them. Brian Peel, executive director of the community-support group AIDS-Vancouver, for one, said that “there should be an option to die with dignity.” Peel added that patients often feel better if they believe that they have “an alternative to a lingering and difficult death.” Said Larry

Scheibe, a Vancouver telephone help-line counsellor for homosexuals who recently saw a close friend dying of AIDS: “Before you say ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay,’ you have to have stood at the foot of the bed.”

Still, despite the evident pain and understandable depression faced by AIDS victims, other specialists in the treatment of the disease argued against offering anyone assistance to die. Some noted that, in most cases, drugs can help alleviate both depression and pain. But others drew a moral line against the wilful ending of a life. Douglas Graydon, an Anglican priest who counsels AIDS victims in Toronto, suggested that any who contemplated suicide—with or without another person’s help— should ask themselves, “Is this what you want to leave the people you love: do you want to put them in legal jeopardy with feelings of guilt?” Meanwhile, Hamilton’s Dr. Carmelo Scime, a former president of Physicians for Life, a group

of doctors that also opposes abortion, said that he was “shocked and dismayed” when he heard about Lewis’s admissions.

But other detractors based their criticism of Lewis on other than moral grounds. Dr. Shelagh Emmott, a Toronto clinical psychologist who works with people infected with AIDS, said that as many as four patients a day discuss with her their desire to commit suicide. In most cases, she said, she has been able to persuade them to postpone acting on their suicidal impulses, initially for periods of up to six months. Later, after the patients received emotional counselling or medical assistance, Emmott told Maclean’s, all of those who decided not to commit suicide told her that they were glad that they had not ended their lives earlier. “People find that they can manage,” said Emmott. As for Lew-

is, she declared, “I think he is playing God.” In Vancouver, authorities decided not to take legal action against Lewis. Although the Criminal Code of Canada forbids anyone to counsel or assist a person to commit suicide, both police and officials of the provincial coroner’s office said that they lacked sufficient evidence to open investigations into the eight deaths. For one thing, Lewis did not identify the eight men, and he said that all of their bodies have been cremated. Said Vancouver regional coroner Larry Campbell: “I have no names. I have no deaths to investigate.” While that situation may have ended the debate over Lewis’s legal accountability, the moral and ethical arguments surrounding his actions continued to rage.

GREG W. TAYLOR

DEREK WOLFF

NANCY WOOD

GLEN ALLEN