The effects of assisted dying laws on the culture continue to astound me. Recently, I spoke with a music therapist who was looking for my perspectives on Canada’s Medical Aid in Dying Law (MAiD) as I have just finished my second film on the subject. Kristen Morrow, MTA is a conscientious objector who will be part of an upcoming forum in Vancouver, entitled “Responding to Change: Music Therapy Perspectives on Navigating Assisted Suicide” . Kristen will be presenting alongside another therapist who used music therapy in a MAiD procedure. Together they will discuss the ethical ramifications of their profession becoming more involved with this “new and controversial aspect of the healthcare system”. The session will be one of many presented at the Music Therapy Association of British Columbia’s annual conference. She says depending on the response to the forum, the conversation may move to a national level.
I suppose this resonated with me so powerfully because I am a musician myself. Music has always been an integral part of my life. I have always used this gift to bring joy, hope – and where I can, bring healing to others.
I want to say at the onset that my heart breaks for people whose circumstances have led them to a place where they feel that an assisted death is their only option. I’ve interviewed people in these situations. I have spoken to them just weeks before their euthanasia. I still grieve for their demise. It touches me to the very core.
The Canadian Music Therapy Association defines the profession as “a discipline in which credentialed professionals use music purposefully within therapeutic relationships to support development, health, and well-being.”
While I understand why music therapists want to have this discussion in light of our new law, I believe Kristen is rightly concerned about her profession’s complicity with the ideology of assisted dying. Like sedatives which are given to calm the patient before a lethal injection or medication, music therapy is now being proposed as a complimentary comfort and relaxation tool in the process. Some may take no issue with this. Others do. Kristen says she got into this profession to use music as a vehicle for healing and now she may be asked to use her gift to comfort – be complicit – in a suicide. An assisted suicide yes, but still suicide.
Let’s put aside various legal criteria for an assisted death for a moment. After all, it’s a moving target in most countries and the language is extremely broad and subjective. Canada is no exception. Incremental extensions and exceptions to the law are commonplace in various countries. Now, people non-terminal conditions (like blindness), chronic illness, mental illness, even children and babies are now ‘qualifying’ in some countries. Canada’s criteria continues to be challenged.
Another consideration is the ‘completed life’ bill in the Netherlands, where, if passed, would allow otherwise healthy people to ask for euthanasia if they feel their ‘life is complete’ or no longer worth living. Even the most staunch supporters of euthanasia feel the genie has left the bottle and are speaking out about this “worrisome culture shift”.
It seems to me that once society accepts that life is no longer worth living in certain situations – and that ethos has been enshrined in law, we are all left to deal with the fall out. The ripple effect continues for decades, perhaps centuries. Society’s vulnerable are the first to suffer. Patients demand their ‘right to die’ while doctors in Ontario are now forced to ‘do or refer’ — or risk losing their licence, violating their very right of freedom of conscience. How long before this applies to others who refuse to participate on grounds of conscience – nurses, nurse practitioners, support staff, pharmacists, psychologists — music therapists like Kristen?
Most baby boomers in North America will remember a time when the very idea of euthanasia for people was so foreign, so unthinkable that its very application was relegated to disturbing news stories or science fiction movies.
When I heard more about music therapy being considered as part of the assisted death procedure, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the post-apocalyptic, dystopian movie Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston. Depressed and disgusted by the depravity of the world, an elderly police analyst (played by Edward G. Robinson) enters a government
clinic to obtain an assisted suicide. While registering, the clerk asks him what kind of music he would like to hear while as the procedure takes place. He asks for classical. Light classical. He asks that the music be be played for a full 20 minutes until he dies. Sure enough, when he enters the room, his requested music is played through the speakers and delightful imagery is projected on screens around him. As he lay on his pre-arranged death bed, two assistants, dressed like angels give him the drink that will end his life. The music intensifies until he succumbs to the lethal medication. While the actual plot of the movie is quite far-fetched, the atmosphere in which people are euthanized is quite chilling, especially in light of these modern day discussions and rapid extensions to the law. Coincidentally, the movie is set in the year 2022.
During the filming of my film Fatal Flaws, my crew and I visited an actual ‘end of life clinic’ in the Netherlands. The clinic, which operates independently, is set up for people whose own GP will not grant their request for euthanasia. It’s not really a clinic per se, rather a consultation facility where, if the patient qualifies, doctors will travel to their home to carry out the euthanasia request. I was told by the director of the clinic that approximately one third of the patients who apply, end up qualifying for euthanasia.
Since the law was passed in Canada, over 3,000 people have chosen an assisted death. In 2018 alone, we are witnessing a 30% jump in MAiD procedures. This increase will no doubt have an effect on access and less restrictive laws. Sadly, this leaves many vulnerable people in an extremely precarious position. Depression, fear of loss of autonomy, fear of becoming a burden, the draining of finances are the top rationale which affect he choices people make in ending their lives early. I wonder. As more people and professions fall in line with this philosophy, how much more will the pressure be on any of us to ‘opt in’ when we are at the lowest point in our lives. And just like planning funerals, people who qualify for an assisted death are now planning not only who will surround them at the end – but what kind of atmosphere they wish while the procedure is taking place. One has to ask, where is all of this leading us?
In the painting entitled “Power of Music” by Louis Gallait we see a brother and sister resting before an old tomb. The brother is attempting to comfort his sibling by playing the violin, and she has fallen into a deep sleep, “oblivious of all grief, mental and physical”.
I can imagine what happens in the scene later on. The sister would have woken up, consoled and rejuvenated by the power of music. Alternatively, when music therapy is used as a comfort tool in euthanasia procedures, there is no hopeful conclusion. Only death.
I join my voice with Kristen when I say that pandora’s box in this case is wide open and that music therapy should never enter in. Rather, let us use this great gift of music – and our own gift of presence – to be the reason for someone’s tomorrow, no matter how challenging those ‘tomorrows’ may be.
-Kevin Dunn is a respected Canadian filmmaker, guest speaker and president of DunnMedia. His recent work “Fatal Flaws: Legalizing Assisted Death” looks at the effects of these laws on the culture in four different countries. His first film on the subject is “The Euthanasia Deception” . He can be reached at www.dunnmedia.ca