Webcast archive: Two CBC interviews on euthanasia

This week, we’re looking at two CBC interviews with two radically different approaches to euthanasia.

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

  • Two CBC radio interviews, two approaches to euthanasia

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


  • Last week, the CBC radio show The Current touched on euthanasia in two separate episodes. On May 1, the host, Anna Maria Tremonti, interviewed the children of George and Shirley Brickenden. The Brickendens were the first couple in Canada to be euthanized at the same time; they died in March.
  • On May 3, Ms. Tremonti spoke to Ing Wong-Ward, a disability rights advocate, associate director of the Center for Independent Living in Toronto (currently on leave) and a former radio producer for the CBC. Ms. Wong-Ward is currently receiving palliative care for cancer. She has been very open about her illness and her plan to not seek assisted suicide or euthanasia (AS/E). Although both interviews concerned end-of-life issues, their stories were treated very differently.
  • In the Brickendens’ case, the journalist never questioned the assumption that “assisted dying” was unrelated to suicide. Nor did Ms. Tremonti challenge whether the desire for suicide was “rational”, or whether suicide prevention measures should have been tried.  Their age (the Brickendens were both in their 90s), their “declining” health, and their need not to live without each other, were offered as reason enough to justify helping them kill themselves.
  • Their children said the Brickendens were “in constant pain” but never complained.  They said George often helped Shirley with personal care tasks her arthritis made impossible. There was no discussion of how personal assistance services, and better pain relief might have improved the couple’s quality of life.
  • The Brickendens’ death was portrayed as a real-life version of those romantic stories about loving couples who die at the same time, but in this case, it was arranged. The Brickenden children said their parents had discussed ending their lives (“flying away”) together for forty years!
  • Romanticizing suicide is one of the practices discouraged by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention in their guidelines on reporting on suicide.  Media are encouraged to exercise restraint in reporting about suicide because of the potential that others in a similar situation might be “inspired” to emulate those who commit suicide.  Other World Health Association suicide reporting guidelines that The Current program violated include:
    • Normalizing suicide – The report emphasized the large number of people have been euthanized since the practice became legal two years ago.  The response to the Brickendens’ story was described as “unbelievably positive”.
    • Glorifying suicide – The interview describes the family’s celebration of the euthanasia and the web page features a family photo at their “final dinner together.”
    • Presenting suicide as a solution to problems – The Brickendens were described as exhausted, visiting the hospital multiple times per week.  There was no discussion of the role of poor health-care or pain management in inducing their suicides, nor of the potential for adaptive clothing or personal assistance services to enable the Brickendens to remain independent.
    • Describing in detail the method used or the site of the suicide.
  • Mr. Brickenden’s request to die was not approved until his health declined at the beginning of this year. This was interpreted as a sign that the safeguards included in the law worked. But the fact that Mr. Brickenden’s death was delayed does not mean that the safeguards protected him from external pressures that: limited his choices, made him feel devalued, or degraded his quality of life (either through coercion or lack of needed services and supports), Also, Ms. Tremonti failed to mention the lack of monitoring and enforcement of the safeguards under the Canadian law, and that violations of the safeguards have already resulted in deaths of ineligible persons.
  • Some quotes from the Brickenden family stand out:
    • Pamela Brickenden mentioned that “dying with dignity…is better than a botched suicide.” A “traditional” suicide would probably be messier, more painful, and traumatizing for the loved ones left behind. This statement recognizes that AS/E is, in fact, about suicide, despite advocates’ claims to the contrary.  Yet no one mentioned suicide prevention or questioned whether suicide was an appropriate response to the Brickendens’ situation.
    • Any possible objections to AS/E were ignored or dismissed, using the defense of “individual choice.” In her only direct challenge to the Brickendens’ narrative, Ms. Tremonti asked whether a “loss of physical [or] mental abilities,” necessarily meant a person lacked dignity.  Pamela Brickenden sidestepped the question, saying instead “I think it’s a personal choice. I don’t think it’s for everybody and it shouldn’t be.”
    • The siblings cited the support of local religious figures to suggest that even moral objections to AS/E are not strongly held. Arguments made by disability rights advocates didn’t even register.
  • Though her interview also focused on her individual situation, Ing Wong-Ward acknowledged the barriers that push disabled people toward the “choice” of AS/E. She highlighted American disability rights activists who were arrested for protesting cuts to Medicaid, noting how easy we have it in Canada by comparison! And like many other disabled advocates, Ms. Wong-Ward mentioned that she didn’t want to be considered “inspiring” for performing everyday tasks.
  • When the conversation turned to assisted suicide, Ms. Tremonti observed that “not everyone who meets the criteria for an assisted death will see it as right for them” which seemed to imply that AS/E has become the “default” option for old, ill and disabled people.
  • Ms. Wong-Ward explained that she is uncomfortable with the phrase “dying with dignity” since it implies that people who need assistance to eat, use the bathroom or communicate somehow lack dignity. Death is not “the only way to deal with” bodily limitations, she said.
  • She also called for “a greater understanding” of who is choosing to end their lives and why they are making that decision. For example, “people are not able to access public palliative [care], hospice care” or other community supports “in a timely fashion.” Social isolation comes into play as well. Ms. Wong-Ward is grateful for the support of her family and friends.
  • At the end of the interview, Ms. Tremonti felt it necessary to say that “Ing Wong Ward is one of those people who made me cry.” In doing so, she appears to disregard Ms. Wong-Ward’s preference not to be considered “inspiring!”
  • These two interviews demonstrate the ongoing problems in reporting about AS/E.
    • Journalists have a very superficial view of the issue.  They don’t understand the potential causes of abuse and coercion or see the impact of barriers and discrimination on the “choice” to die.  They are unaware of the double standard that says the suicidal feelings of old, ill and disabled people aren’t worthy of suicide prevention intervention.
    • Because they focus on individual cases, journalists are unaware the larger social and political problems associated with AS/E.
    • Journalists continue to ignore the guidelines for reporting on suicide when covering AS/E, because they have accepted the propaganda of assisted suicide proponents that “assisted suicide” is not suicide.
    • AS/E is becoming the default option for end-of-life care.  When people talk favourably about AS/E, it is assumed they are speaking for the majority, but when they refuse AS/E, their choice is considered unusual and “inspiring.”
  • Because Journalists rarely encounter old, ill or disabled people in everyday situations (due to continuing segregation), they share the same fears, discomfort and insecurities about disability as the rest of the population.  As a result, disability is shown as “other,” or “different,” either as frightening or as a source of inspiration (regardless of the person’s preference).
  • We’ve mentioned in previous webcasts that TV and radio can provide a safe setting for non-disabled people to confront their discomfort about disability. But in order for this strategy to work, the public needs to be given detailed and accurate information about the policies that affect us, especially AS/E.