There are Canadians who believe that Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer has been sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for a mercy killing -- the asphyxiation of his severely disabled daughter out of intense love mixed with desperation -- and that this punishment is tragically unfair.
It is neither tragic nor unfair. The tragedy was the premeditated killing of a 12-year-old girl. It was fair that Mr. Latimer should be convicted of second-degree murder, as he was in two different trials, and that he should serve the minimum sentence the law sets for so serious a crime. The Supreme Court of Canada rightly upheld that sentence yesterday.
Anyone with human feelings, particularly any parent or caregiver, cannot read the details of the Latimers' life with their daughter Tracy without sharing their anguish. She had a severe form of cerebral palsy. She suffered five or six seizures a day. She was quadriplegic and immobile. She had the mental capacity of a four-month-old. She was completely dependent on others. The frequent operations she required left her in pain. Mr. Latimer hated to see her suffer; he couldn't bear the thought of more surgery for her.
At the same time, Tracy had her pleasures. She liked to play music on the radio, for which she used a special button. She was happy to see her parents, and loved it when they rocked her gently. She was not dying. And Mr. Latimer had choices far different from the one he chose. The parents had rejected the feeding of a tube into their daughter's stomach to improve her nutrition and provide a better route for pain relief. They had decided against placing Tracy permanently in the group home where she lived between July and October, 1993, while her mother was pregnant.
To excuse or diminish Mr. Latimer's offence because he had been a caring father in heartbreaking circumstances would send a signal to other caregivers for severely disabled children or adults that, if they took upon themselves the role of executioner, society would see their murders as somehow worthier and more understandable than most killings. It would send a signal to people with disabilities that whether they lived or died depended on the threshold of pain or tolerance of those caring for them. Those are not signals a compassionate society should send, let alone one that considers premeditated murder one of its worst crimes.
Tracy Latimer could not and did not consent to her death. That fact distances this case from the debate over assisted suicide. Canada might do well to adopt a law that provides in narrow, carefully regulated circumstances for terminally ill patients who face excruciating pain to choose their time and manner of assisted death. But any such move would hinge on the clear and repeated expression of consent by the ill person. Again, Tracy could not and did not consent; nor was she terminally ill.
The Supreme Court considered and dismissed the argument that Mr. Latimer's killing of his daughter was justified by the defence of necessity. It failed all three tests. There was no imminent peril; Mr. Latimer had a reasonable legal alternative to his act; the harm he inflicted was disproportionate to any harm avoided. And the existence of the 10-year minimum sentence was not grossly disproportionate. "In this case the gravest possible consequences resulted from an act of the most serious and morally blameworthy intentionality."
The court noted that Mr. Latimer had the option of seeking clemency from the federal government. Mr. Latimer said yesterday he didn't think he would stand a good chance of a pardon. For all the reasons above, neither do we.