Sen. Betty Unger on Bill C-14: ‘I am morally opposed’

Why one senator sees the assisted-dying bill as ‘just morally wrong’

Senator Betty Unger.

Senator Betty Unger.

Several members of the Senate have spoken out against the government’s proposed assisted-death bill, on the grounds that it is too narrow and restrictive. But there are also those who oppose the bill because they object to assisted death entirely. As the Red Chamber prepares to take another look at Bill C-14, now that it has passed third reading in the House of Commons, Maclean’s spoke to one senator who objects to it: Betty Unger, who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2012.

Q: What’s your view of this bill?

A: I am morally opposed. Period. There’s no amount of amendment that can make this bill better. There are some that can make it less harmful, but the basic premise of the bill is changing the Criminal Code to legalize assisted homicide, killing—whatever words you want to use. I have followed carefully what is happening in the Netherlands, in Belgium, and I know that they are now going down the slippery slope. And Canada appears to be ready­ to throw this wide open, so that Canada would have the most liberal, open policies of any country in the world.

Q: What’s in the bill so far is not the most liberal of what’s available in the world. Is that what you’re talking about?

A: No, but it will be. Because what’s not in the bill yet, the Liberals are talking about studying. I don’t know with certainty, but I would presume studying with an eye to adding them.

Q: Can you tell me what you mean by a slippery slope for jurisdictions like the Netherlands and Belgium?

A: I read this some time ago, but elderly people or people with disabilities are going to their lawyer before they go to their doctor. They go to their lawyer to get a sworn affidavit to say ‘I do not wish to be euthanized,’ because they are afraid that if something should happen, that would be their fate. I’m from Alberta, and there have been discussions ongoing in Alberta. I read headlines that say elderly people are becoming afraid of their doctors. They want to stay home, and they want to have good health care provided to them, and it is just wrong that our government seems to be prepared to do more to help the living die than it is to help the living have a good retirement or live well until they die naturally.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: There will be money spent as a result of this, and why not put more money into palliative care? The government had talked about that, and there was a figure of $3 billion that was mentioned, but there’s been no mention of it since. That money would make a huge difference in providing palliative care. As it stands today, about 30 per cent of Canadians have access to palliative care. There should be no option for death unless there’s another option, and that should be good palliative care, or good medical support—a doctor, a psychiatrist, a social worker, maybe. Because people have different needs, but that’s not being talked about at all.

Q: What is your response to people who argue this is necessary because there are conditions such as terminal cancer in which it is not possible, even with good palliative care, to control the pain someone might be in?

A: I don’t accept that argument. I know that if end of life appears (likely) within the next 10 days to two weeks, people can be put in a sort of suspended state where they don’t feel pain, and their families can still visit with them until their eventual passing—and they do pass naturally. That’s the extreme.

Q: So your contention is that assisted death is not necessary because there must be ways to control people’s pain even in the case of terminal illness?

A: Yes. I believe there are better ways. Marijuana is now being touted as a potential wonder drug for people who are suffering terminal illness—from cancer, specifically.

Q: In your first comment, you said flatly, ‘I am morally opposed.’ I wonder if you can tell me a little more what that means to you?

A: I am a Catholic, and a practising Catholic. When you hear someone say, ‘I’m Catholic, but…’ you know the ‘but’ puts them in a different category. I am a Catholic, and I am opposed to killing. And especially vulnerable people who may not want to be killed.

Related: How assisted death became the new pro-choice

Q: What about the people lining up who do want this option for themselves? Kay Carter would be one example, but there are many others who have said, ‘I’ve been diagnosed with this condition, this is how I would like to control my end.’ What’s your response to that kind of direct, personal advocacy?

A: We know that there are approximately 30 per cent of Canadian physicians who are prepared to do this. Before this issue started to be debated, people were going to different countries because this is how they wanted their end to be. Right now, we don’t have an abortion law in Canada, and people seek and obtain abortions. I won’t say for a fact, but I know that there are doctors—this practice is already being done.

Q: You mentioned amendments that could make C-14 less harmful. Can you tell me what you’d like to see?

A: Well, one would be if there is not an option of palliative care, there cannot only be death. I just read an article about a real-life person who kept telling his family he wanted to die. What they did was found a new doctor for him, they found new supports for him, and that man lived two more years, died naturally, and during those two years, he kept telling his family how grateful he was that they didn’t just say, “Okay, we’ll help you.”

Michele Constantini/Getty Images

Michele Constantini/Getty Images

Q: What broader lesson do you take from that that we should keep in mind?

A: This issue is being forced to debate in Canada because three people chose to make an issue of it, and of course it went to the Supreme Court, and you know the rest. Most Canadians never thought about this. It hasn’t been top of mind for anybody, really, but for three people. Quebec has the legislation as a province; they studied it for six years. And yet this legislation is getting rammed through the House, and more or less hurried through the Senate.

Q: How would you have preferred to see the House and Senate handle it?

A: I’d prefer to see more open discussion with Canadians. They’ve had no say. Their members of Parliament go, but when closure is invoked, their members of Parliament are silenced. There really has not been a good debate in Canada at large.

Related: Sandra Martin on how to legislate doctor-assisted death

Q: What do you feel are the options available to you, now that the bill is going back to the Senate?

A: I’m going to try to make a couple of amendments, I’m going to be speaking to the bill. Palliative care, and conscience rights for doctors, health care workers and institutions who don’t want to do this. It should not be done in a hospital, because it will strike fear into the heart of every elderly person.

Q: So many people who have strong feelings about this have personal experience. Have you had experience in your family with extended illnesses or anything like this?

A: Not the palliative care issue, but both my parents and my husband are gone, and I was with each one when they passed.

Q: What lessons did you draw from those experiences that impact your moral decision about this?

A: It wasn’t these specific examples, it’s my upbringing as a Catholic. It’s just morally wrong.


Sen. Betty Unger on Bill C-14: ‘I am morally opposed’

  1. So don’t drink the hemlock….!

    Choice honey….choice

    • One of the most cogent arguments for opposing Bill C-14 is the fact that EMILYONE is in favor of the Bill.
      Res ipsa loquitor.

  2. Agree!
    1. Vulnerable and suffering people need better care and attention, so they can LIVE WITH DIGNITY.
    2. Let’s treat suicidal people with the care and concern we used to, not encourage them to end their lives – life is precious regardless of one has or hasn’t, can or can’t do.
    3. This also leaves so much room for selfish caregivers to manipulate the elderly or disabled to make their job easier, or give access to their inheritances, and endless possible personal, governmental, and institutional interests… These people are already vulnerable and feel they are a burden…. :(

    I am sure there are many other reasons people oppose assisted SUICIDE, or the killing of the vulnerable and suicidal.

    • Manuela, you’re right. Emilyone, this is more complicated than simply saying if you don’t want the hemlock, don’t drink the hemlock. The hemlock is going to be provided by state-regulated health providers, paid for by you and me, the taxpayers. The hemlock will be offered to people because it’s cheaper than real health care in expensive hospitals. The hemlock will be written into law so some health-care providers have to serve it up like hospital food, while others will be ordered to refer people to other hemlock providers. Insurance providers will offer hemlock to people as a way of cutting short 30 years of benefits. And from what we’ve seen in Belgium and the Netherlands, the hemlock will be given without being asked, and when people try to find out what happened they’ll be told “Hemlock, what hemlock?”

      • Citation needed.

        In the countries assisted suicide is already legal – where are the mass cullings of the elderly and infirm?

    • My aunt had ALS. How can you live with dignity if you can barely move an eyelid?

      Before I experienced her downfall, I probably could have agreed with you. But there is no way anyone with that condition – or many others like it – should have to prolong their suffering.

  3. The Senator seems to be mixed up between Betty Unger -Citizen, and Betty Unger -Senator. Her moral position and choices are her own personal affair and I don’t want to hear them voiced in the Senate or in interviews when Macleans interviews a Senator. What I do what to hear is how she as a Senator intends to work to improve the bill so that those in need can manage their situation themselves, either in advance or in the moment, to obtain the type of care they desire in terms of palliative care or assisted dying, with appropriate morally-neutral counselling and medical advice. While I heard a little of this in the article, I heard too much of “…..it’s morally wrong…..etc etc”. Betty Unger, Citizen may think so, and she’s entitled to her opinion as a citizen, but I have an opinion as well, and I don’t get to pump it in the Senate or in Macleans articles, and neither does any other Joe Public.
    What I can’t stand is one person, particularly a public official, righteously telling me what is morally right or wrong. I’ll make my own decisions on that score thank you very much, and ask our public officials to keep their personal opinions to themselves out of courtesy to the rest of us. If they do, I’ll honour their right to their personal position by keeping my own moral opinion to myself as well.

    • And Jas-Toronto, well said. I agree wholeheartedly.

      • That’s two of us who think Jas nailed it.

  4. I am truly afraid we have someone who answers serious questions with anecdotal heresay at best. This ‘I heard about Belgium and it’s slippery slope’ garbage is completely irrational. Does she really think the elderly are afraid their doctors won’t give them proper care and would rather just ‘kill them’? Where is this crazy evidence? She sounds just as paranoid and delusional as some poor elderly that have to deal with dementia..,and she’s in our Senate.
    Now that’s frightening.

    I thought we were a country that was enlightened in its’ thinking; enough so that the separation of church and state meant something. I, for one, do not approve of an unelected official making decisions because of religious values, whatever those might be.

    If this zealot wants to use gossip as arguments against a practice that she considers morally wrong (and if she gets terminal cancer, discovers she really doesn’t know anything about palliative care (her erroneous belief that the dying can be in some drug-induced pleasant state for a couple weeks while having family around, with no pain, is a nice fairytale we all dream of, with no basis in actual fact-someone should send her to a palliative care facility and have her preach her “knowledge” to those dying, and the families that watch them suffer without option, and to those wonderful souls who work there, and see if she gets a better education) suffers pain that no drug can touch, she can brave her moral affectations on her own) she should hear the other side, with an open mind.

    Euthanasia is assisted suicide, not murder. A personal right for someone to be in control of their health, and their death. No one has the right (nor is it moral) to insist someone with an incurable terminal disease, who is not mentally ill, has no options to feel better (her story about some guy finding a doc and enjoying improved health for a couple of years is not a valid story to bring up, as this person shouldn’t be a candidate for euthanasia anyway), should live, suffer, because this self-righteous, totally ignorant excuse for a senator forces them to, because of her Catholic beliefs. That’s plain evil.

    Education, published studies, comments by those in the palliative care field, doctors who specialize in gerontology and pain management, sociologists, psychologists with data…opposed or proponent…those are the informed opinions that should help our government make unbiased, logical, informed decisions, not people who aren’t even smart enough to know that making policy takes research, not stories of so-and-so, and I hear in Belgium, and my Catholic beliefs close my mind to others’ even having a choice.

    Can’t we impeach her somehow, just for being completely scary, and in a place of power? Unbelievable.

    • You have the best commentary on this, that I have read in a long time. Just the fact that she would suggest that marijuana works so great for pain shows that she really isn’t thinking with her entire brain. It does nothing for migraine pain, so I have no clue what kind of pain it works on but terminal illness ain’t one of them. I think the early dementia may actually be correct. The logic she is using is so simplistic and off base it speaks to a cognitive issue.

    • Could not agree more. The author was more than generous in the interview giving her opportunity after opportunity to back up her opinion with real facts, but she kept digging in. That last line shows how ignorant she really is.

  5. How can you argue or discuss the issues with someone who says “It wasn’t these specific examples, it’s my upbringing as a Catholic. It’s just morally wrong.”
    Definition of a closed mind. But I wonder if someone tried to pry open her mind…where would she break with the strict Catholic beliefs. Maybe she has a daughter who uses birth control or a family member who had an abortion. Would she abandon them all? The point I am trying to make is “this is just a cop out for her”. She would rather stand firm because to do otherwise would question her whole belief system.

  6. It’s almost as if she thinks that she’s entitled to impose her conservative Catholic beliefs on a secular nation?
    Yeah, pretty terrible for somebody to think that they can force other people to live (or not) according to their faith-based belief system.

    This does say something rather interesting about Canada’s senate problem, now doesn’t it? Supreme Court judges also provide “sober, second thought” to the House of Commons, but they do so on the basis of interpreting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What litmus test do senators use again? Ahh yes, their own personal discretion.. By which criterion do we select them again? Oh yeah, that’s just arbitrary really. The Prime Minister appoints people, or the Governor-General does based on the PM’s suggestion, or I suppose now the PM suggests them to the GG based on nominations from a panel, which the PM appoints himself..

    You see Canadians, “sober, second thought” is one of those phrases that sounds like a great, intelligent and useful thing, but in practice it really just means giving random people (some are good, others not) a sense of entitlement to veto legislation passed by duly elected representatives on the basis of their own personal judgement. Now, I think that the Senate will be smart enough to stay out of the way and not block this important social reform; however, any proponents of an unelected Senate as a source of “sober, second thought” should really take a good long look at Senator Unger. Because she, and more people like her in the future, will get to determine which House of Commons bills are sober and which aren’t. Drunken masses be damned.

    • When talking about the problem of the Senate, you forgot to mention:
      a) unaccountability – Senators are not accountable to the people they help govern.
      b) longevity – Senators are appointed until age 75, and nobody can unappoint them.
      c) inverted rep by pop – BC with a population of about 4.5 million people has 6 Senators. Compare this to NB with a population of about 750 thousand having 10 Senators.

      Personally, I think the Senate in its current form is an anachronism. Is there any other developed country that has a legislature that is appointed (by a single person, no less), and where its members serve until age 75 with almost zero accountability, and where the notion of representation by population is turned upside down?

  7. If I’m reading this right, her objections to this bill are:

    – The Slippery Slope Fallacy
    – Anecdotal evidence
    – A book written centuries ago.

    My aunt had ALS. I watched her deteriorate, and become an empty shell – that was 100% mentally alert. In the end she chose to have her feeding tube removed. She chose to starve to death because it was less painful. Tell me that’s a better option.

  8. My wife chose to suffer the terrible pain, discomfort, fear and anxiety of a terminal illness. Every day that passed was seen, by her, as a win. Our children supported that difficult choice, as did I, and stayed at her side as she died.

    But those same children know that if I am faced with similar circumstances, I want no such thing. Winning, for me, has a different definition and they’re good with that.

    They encouraged their mother to live, and they will facilitate my choice to die peacefully.

    Choices. Live with it Betty.

  9. Senator Unger actually does not speak for any of us who are wanting this right to die with dignity…I find it appalling senator Unger is pushing the Catholic agenda with this Bill if she is going to be looking out for the Catholic Church she needs to resign as Senator.. She has no idea what it is like to suffer her ridiculous comments showed this…Unger believes people should suffer so selfish people like her can sit in palliative care visiting!!!!! How disgustingly uninformed she is ….until this woman has a horrid disease that makes her life unbearable she needs to butt out. If she is going to pimp for the church then she shouldn’t be able to vote on this bill ….she is wrong on other places who already do this. She’s fear mongering to get others on her side and shame on her. I have MS and this senator hasn’t a clue and no matter what she pushes because of her personally religious crap I will decide for myself what I would do to end my life , unlike the fairy tale reasons she gave I won’t be suffering so ppl can sit there staring at me to visit.

  10. Ok wait what? A politician with morals? who believes they can cram their own religous beliefs down the throats of others as a statement of facts? A catholic….who believes salvation was obtained by the slaughter of another….assisted suicide bad. Pinning the “son of god” to a cross and whipping and torturing him for your sins good.

    Thats kind of funny

    So mental health care in this country is non existant, the police run around shooting the “mentally ill” with impunity already, prisons are used to hold the worst cases of mentally ill “criminals” (like the 19 yr old barrie teen shania paige)

    the answer to assisted suicide is pallitive care?…..who’s giving this pallitive care? They’ll market mental illness (Just look on CMHA how they refer to the ill as mental health consumers) and kick people from using crisis services into jails…..but somehow society is going to come together and “care” for the dying…….


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