Webcast archive: Dr. Harvey Schipper

This week, we discuss the controversy caused by Dr. Harvey Schipper’s allusions to Nazi Germany while studying euthanasia.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck and Christian Debray discuss:

  • Dr. Harvey Schipper: victim of the “third rail” of the assisted suicide debate
  • FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: These suicide requests do not arise from mental illness. These are fully-informed, competent people who are making a rational choice to avoid tortuous pain and suffering. Shouldn’t we treat them differently from those with mental illness?

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • Last month we announced the formation of three academic panels to study potential expansion of Canada’s euthanasia and assisted suicide program to include mature minors, people with mental illness, and people with dementia. Dr. Harvey Schipper was selected to chair the committee on advance directives by people with dementia, bringing his experience as a doctor and lawyer to the task.
  • Upon his appointment on April 28th, Dying with Dignity Canada made a blog post on its website and facebook page criticizing the appointment of someone they considered to be a “strident” opponent of assisted suicide.  Schipper’s sin: linking assisted suicide to the Nazi euthanasia program.
  • The blog post was picked up the same day by political reporter Joan Bryden, whose opinion piece attacking Schipper ran in the Toronto Star and Metronews, among others.
  • Because of the controversy, Dr. Schipper stepped down from his post as committee chair..
  • In a 2014 commentary, Dr. Schipper stated: “Similar arguments about relieving suffering were used by the Nazis to justify first exterminating the weakened and disabled, then the mentally ill…”
  • No one challenged the truth of Schipper’s statement, only his drawing the connection between the eugenic values that drove the Nazi T-4 program, and the modern movement for euthanasia and assisted suicide.
  • The Nazi euthanasia program has always been the “third rail” for opponents of assisted suicide; touch it and you die; you lose all credibility.
  • However the propaganda used to sell the German people on the Nazi’s eugenic euthanasia program bears a striking resemblance to news stories we find in the media today.  Researcher Dick Sobsey describes the central story of the 1941 film Ich Klage An (“I Accuse”).
  • “A woman was losing control over her own body as she lost ground to a degenerative neurological condition. Her husband and another close male friend looked on as she begged for help to release her from her suffering, but the law would not allow them to give her mercy.” Finally, one brave man defies the law
    and allows her to die with dignity.
  • At his trial, the husband states: “ I accuse the law which hinders doctors and judges in their task of helping people. I confess… I have delivered my wife from her sufferings, following her wishes. My life and the lives of all people who will suffer the same fate as my wife, depends on your verdict. Now, pass your verdict.“
  • The ability to recall this historical use of propaganda would seem to make Mr. Schipper an excellent candidate to lead a committee deciding on whether advance directives should be applied where a person has dementia.  After all, as George Santayana cautioned: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Q:     These suicide requests do not arise from mental illness.  These are fully-informed, competent people who are making a rational choice to avoid tortuous pain and suffering.  Shouldn’t we treat them differently from those with “mental illness”?

  • The idea of “rational suicide” has been promoted by a few researchers, but has not been accepted by any of the major mental health associations.  Surveys that show support for “rational suicide” may, in fact, reveal more about disability bias among mental health professionals than about the reasons people want to die.
  • In the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) released by the American Psychiatric Association in 2012, assessments for suicidality factor in whether a person has a disabling condition as a potential cause.  In other words, the presence of a disability is a reason to offer suicide prevention services.
  • There are social factors that can cause suicidal feelings, such as isolation, bullying, poverty, violence, devaluation by society, institutionalization, identity issues, cultural and language deprivation, substance abuse, and others.  These are all associated with the discrimination of people with disabilities, as well as other groups such as First Nations people, LGBT people, veterans, and other disenfranchised groups.
  • In addition, people with disabilities and elders are subject to high rates of abuse and domestic violence, another factor that contributes to suicide.
  • Studies done of requests for assisted suicide found that the reasons given by people requesting assisted suicide are similar to those given by non-disabled suicidal people.  As well, people asking for assisted suicide are likely to be influenced by the same suicide prevention measures which are effective for non-disabled, suicidal people.
  • Finally, when people with disabilities don’t have a “choice” as to where and how to live, the idea of a “choice” to die is an illusion.  It’s not that people are incapable of making a choice, they simply have no viable choice to make.