by Hilary White

TORONTO, September 21, 2006 (LifeSiteNews.com) – At last week’s Toronto conference of the international Right to Die movement, speakers laid out the course of the movement’s strategy for legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide around the world.

Of particular note is the emphasis on the “right” to be starved and dehydrated to death, especially for patients suffering from dementia or cognitive disabilities.

Seeing a “catch-22” in the dementia and euthanasia problem, the Right to Die movement says the problem is that some, while unwilling “to end life prematurely,” know that“it requires mental competence to take personal responsibility for choosing a peaceful death at the right time.” The difficulty is that when a patient is incapacitated by dementia and unable to make his wishes known, family members may intervene to stop dehydration deaths.

Removal of nutrition and hydration tubes has become a key issue in the Right to Die movement’s campaign. Dr. Stanley Terman warned conferees that the wishes of the family, often manipulated by the “religious right” is a threat to securing the right to be killed by dehydration for dementia patients.

Dr. Terman, a psychiatrist specializing in end-of-life family counselling, said the solution is a plan that “satisfies desires to avoid a life of dementia,” and yet protects family members from having to take steps to end the patient’s life.

Terman also pointed to the increasing costs of keeping dementia patients alive, echoing the running eugenic theme of the conference in favour of euthanasia as a cost-cutting measure. Terman is the author of a book, “The Best Way to Say Good-bye” that explains how patients can ensure they will be dehydrated to death if experiencing dementia.

Terman, with a number of other speakers, pointed to Wesley J. Smith, the lawyer and writer on bioethics issues, as a force to be reckoned with in the euthanasia debate. He stated that if a patient wishes ensure that he will have food and fluids withdrawn then he needs to read his (Terman’s) book. If he wishes to prevent the withdrawal or withholding of food and fluids then he needs to read Wesley Smith’s books.

Another major theme of the Right to Die strategy is the issue of autonomy as a criterion for deciding end of life questions. Robert Raben, a political organizer and advisor explained how the Right to Die movement was attempting to convince politicians that their position was politically positive.

Raben says he is convinced that their message must be: “Who Decides?” meaning that the decision to end or sustain life must be in the hands exclusively of the patient.

The “autonomy” issue, he said, will play well in the US culture of individualism and “choice.”

In modern bioethics thinking, autonomy is often given as a key indicator in the determination of “personhood”. Many bioethicists argued that because Terri Schiavo’s disability had reduced her autonomy that she was, in effect, already dead.

Another speaker, Steve Hopcraft, the political organizer for the recent California campaign to legalize assisted suicide, said that the movement must work to ban the word “suicide” from its lexicon.

Hopcraft explained the results of the polling data from the California campaign. He is convinced that even though they failed to get the bill passed into law, that in fact they were so successful it is inevitable they will pass a law.

Focus groups found that when the questions were framed as issues of “suicide” or “assisted suicide,” the public was less receptive. When they used terms such as “aid in dying” or “end of life choices” they gained 15% in their polling. Media, however, were not cooperative and refused to change the language.

Hopcraft said that at the next round, the movement would frame the debate on themes of “patients rights,”“senior citizens issues,” and the “right to choose.

Conference speakers included a who’s who of the euthanasia and right to die world, including George Felos, the lawyer who drove the court battles to kill Terri Schiavo; Derek Humphry, Chair of the Advisory Committee of the Final Exit Network USA; Lord Joel Joffe, a member of the British House of Lords, and sponsor of a bill allowing physician aid-in-dying which is currently before the UK Parliament; Dr. Rob Jonquière, a leader in the Right to Die Society of the Netherlands.

Also in attendance was Evelyn Martens, the British Columbia woman who was acquitted of two assisted suicides in 2004 and Lesley Martin, New Zealand’s most notorious euthanasia advocate who was convicted of the attempted murder of her mother; and Dr. Philip Nitschke MD, founder and director of Exit International, Australia.