Canadian on Trial for Assisted Suicide Deaths of Two Elderly Women

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 22, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Canadian on Trial for Assisted Suicide Deaths of Two Elderly Women

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by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
September 22, 2004

British Columbia, Canada ( — Preparations for the trial of a Canadian woman accused of counseling and assisting two women to commit suicide have begun. If convicted, 74-year-old Evelyn Martens could face 14 years in prison.

Martens has been charged with aiding Monique Charest, a former nun, to commit suicide in January 2002, as well as related charges in the death of Leyanne Burchell in June 2002. Both women were thought to be terminally ill.

The trial began Monday, although three weeks are needed to clear up legal matters that are not being disclosed. The jury selection process is scheduled to begin October 12.

A ban on publication of details of the proceedings was posted on the doors of the courtroom. The ban prohibits the publication, broadcasting, or other distribution of information about the defendant until a verdict is reached by a jury.

Martens expressed hope that her case would establish a legal precedent to allow assisted suicide. Currently it is not illegal in Canada to attempt suicide, but it is illegal to counsel or aid another in committing suicide.

"A Gallup poll says there’s 80 percent support for physician-assisted suicide in B.C. alone," Martens said in March 2003. "I hope it will help to change the law, so that every person has the right to choose their own destiny at the time of their choosing."

However, polling data has shown that support for assisted suicide in Canada is diminishing. Some polls even show that a majority of Canadians oppose the practice.

Pollara, a Canadian polling firm, conducted a survey in August 2003 that found that 49 percent of Canadians backed assisted suicide while 37 percent opposed it.

A 1997 poll taken shortly after Robert Latimer was sentenced for killing his disabled 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, found 70 percent of Canadians said assisted suicide was allowable in some circumstances and 60 percent favored legalizing it.

Pro-life groups have pointed out that the language used in the poll can make a difference in the results. For instance, a January 1999 poll for the Toronto Globe and Mail found that 56 percent of Canadians opposed assisted suicide.

Many of the polls that show support of assisted suicide are phrased to group that practice with providing better care for the terminally ill.

"Canadians don’t want to terminate the sick and disabled, they want to care for them," said Dr. Will Johnston of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

"There is no consensus about so-called mercy-killing." Johnston stated. "But there is definitely a public consensus for better palliative care services to relieve the suffering of dying persons. That’s where we should be focusing our attention instead of frightening sick and disabled Canadians with proposals to eliminate them."