On assisted death and psychological suffering

This column was published at Maclean’s on March 28, 2017

In 2015, a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the federal ban on physician-assisted suicide, solidifying the charter right of competent, consenting adults who are “suffering intolerably as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition” the right to die on their own terms with medical assistance.

Criminal prohibition on assisted-death, the unanimous Carter v. Canada decision noted, condemned the “grievously and irremediably ill … to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”

That callous dilemma was rectified only in part by the assisted-dying legislation put out by the federal government in June, which restricts physician-assisted death to “grievous and irremediable” illness where natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.” In effect, the law prohibits assisted-death beyond the end stages of terminal disease, a limit that defies the underpinnings of the Carter ruling and fails to provide medical professionals with straightforward criteria or substantive guidance on this delicate matter.

The instinct to prioritize extreme physical suffering above all else is a deeply human tendency. Even without first-hand experience, people can relate to tangible pain. Compassion is natural. But abstract torment—the sort of ongoing suffering caused by an unquiet mind—garners far less empathy and even scarcer latitude. However unsettling it is to discuss, it is time for honest, open dialogue to begin on the matter of physician-assisted death for psychological disease.

Where the government’s narrow approach to assisted-dying has sown confusion and doubt around patient eligibility and physician liability, the distinct exclusion of psychological suffering further compounds uncertainty, as it inadvertently establishes an hierarchy of disease and opens the extent and validity of another’s suffering to broad debate. When the legitimacy of an illness can be arbitrarily called into question, people living with proven-irremediable torment will be denied their charter right to die simply because their anguish stems from a disrespected diagnosis.

The government will at some point, by choice or by force, amend its assisted-dying legislation which, in its current form, has been deemed unconstitutional by Peter Hogg, Canada’s foremost authority on constitutional law. When the required independent review regarding the scope of eligibility reports back in 2018, a comprehensive understanding of mental illness will prove crucial to making the law right.

Though significant gains have been made in demystifying mental illness and eroding the stigma attached to various diagnoses, there remains a reluctance to candidly discuss, or even admit to, an uncomfortable reality: As is the case for any severe or chronic health condition, for some, recovery from mental illness simply will not happen—not for lack of effort or will, mind you, but because the brain cannot right itself. Be it unrelenting depression or ruthless OCD, psychiatric disorders which prove not-responsive-to-treatment can, like a terminal cancer, slowly destroy the individual without mercy and without reprieve.

A point will be reached where there is little, if any, quality of life, and deterioration will only continue. It will not get better because in those specific, extreme cases, it cannot get better. Though painful to confront, this truth cannot be ignored. It’s key to understanding the true nature of mental disease.

To date, medical conversations around aid in dying have largely omitted this component of psychological illness. In arguing against assisted-death for psychiatric suffering, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) president Jean Echlin insists: “If somebody loses their life now, they’re put to death, and two weeks from now there’s a breakthrough, they’ve lost their life when they could have had quality.”

But that’s a false premise. In making that argument, the EPC and similar organizations appeal to a misplaced faith in some imminent, miraculous recovery. They endlessly debate what if scenarios because they refuse to acknowledge the distressing reality of what is.

Forcing someone to exist for decades in what amounts to an excruciating purgatory is no morally or ethically superior than granting those living a ceaseless hell some control over their circumstance by allowing the option of a merciful end should they, at some point, choose.

Because, to be clear, these individuals will end the pain. Bioethicist Udo Schuklenk, who chaired the Royal Society of Canada’s 2011 panel on end-of-life decision-making, confirms “a large number” of those suffering from intractable mental disease will “at one point or another commit suicide, and it often happens in terrible circumstances”; these methods often further traumatize those left behind. Physician-assisted death offers “a better way for them to end their lives,” and provides a peaceful, controlled conclusion, where no loose ends remain to painfully fray. In this sense, state-facilitated “suicide” is a form of harm-reduction.

There’s understandable apprehension about “normalizing” suicide or being seen as encouraging—or worse, glorifying—death over treatment and recovery for psychiatric suffering. But suicide and assisted-death are two entirely different phenomena and should not be confused.

As the Centre for Suicide Prevention notes, suicidal urges are temporary and the act itself is one of desperation. At their point of crisis, a suicidal person “cannot see alternatives to their situation beyond death.” They do not want to die, but they lack the means to help them live. “Given help,” the CSP says, “they will choose help”; with proper intervention, recovery is not only possible, it can be expected.

Those qualifying for assisted-death explicitly want to die. They have sought and exhausted all available medical resources, and further treatment would not yield results. With no prospect of recovery or further improvement, their decision to die would be neither rash nor ill-considered, but carefully planned and, if carried out, done so mindfully.

A proper framework for assisted-death in cases of physiological suffering would see final approval granted to those who undoubtedly qualify while safeguarding the most vulnerable. Stipulating alternative pathways be encouraged throughout the screening process and mandating meetings with medical and psychiatric professionals who would offer the proper course of treatment to those who perhaps, to that point, had gone without or were unable to access it could, over time, save lives.

The right to assisted-death needn’t supplant or replace proper mental health funding and treatment, either. Where already available, in cases of terminal disease, aid in dying doesn’t replace or supersede comprehensive palliative care, but serves as an option in addition to it.

An excruciating life voluntarily cut short is undeniably tragic. So too is condemning others to an unending misery because the distress of those uninvolved—over the mere notion of an alternative—is deemed the greater bother.

 

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Carleton’s unbalanced approach to wellness

This op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on March 14, 2017.

It’s hard to overstate the naïveté at the heart of Carleton University’s initial decision to remove the scale from its fitness room at the athletic centre.

The move, ostensibly “keeping with current fitness and social trends,” sought to promote a “more holistic” approach to fitness, body image and overall wellness by discouraging focus on weight. (In an email update Tuesday, however, Carleton said scales have now been put in the change rooms.)

Contrary to some reports over the heated debate sparked by the university’s decision, the scale’s initial removal wasn’t prompted by any specific request or complaint, but was an independent choice of the recreation and athletics department.

“We don’t believe being fixated on weight has any positive effect on your health and well-being,” Bruce Marshall, manager of health and wellness, told Carleton’s student-run paper, The Charlatan. “It takes weeks, even months to make a permanent change in your weight. So why obsess about it?”

Marshall, without a hint of irony, offered other numbers on which anxious gym-goers should fixate: “You can start by recording measurements in multiple areas, for example your torso, hips, chest, legs and arms. You would then revisit these measurements after a few weeks to keep tabs on your progress.”

He also suggested “the best indicator” in measuring success “is how well you feel in your body.”

Setting aside the comparative limits in tracking girth versus tracking weight – neither can provide any significant gauge of fitness, as neither separates the lean body mass from fat mass in those numbers – to advise success be measured in terms of self-perception speaks to lack of thought behind the attempted culture shift.

Recent years have seen a rise in this “body positive” approach, where emphasis is placed on learning to love your body and all its imperfections. This is not, at its heart, a bad thing. It offers permission to be flawed, and provides comfort in being human.

However, determining fitness-related progress by “how well you feel in your body” is a terrible strategy. Being remarkably lean and muscular, having a body others might envy, for instance, doesn’t magically translate to confidence, self-worth, or any real sense of accomplishment. Relying on “feeling” as a marker of success in the gym can be a route to self-destruction, and no less so than obsessing over numbers on a scale.

Tangible, reliable methods of tracking success in health and fitness are essential to sustained progress and maintained well-being, both inside the gym and out. While an imperfect tool, the scale serves as an easy, reliable motivator and monitor.

And while most associate the scale with the quest for weight loss, it’s essential for those whose goals in the gym include gradual, sustained weight gain.

It’s entirely normal to approach a scale with some hesitation. Having an unhealthy relationship with the numbers that appear, however, to a point where it interferes with daily life – where it consumes all one’s attention, drives irrational dietary habits, causes relentless anxiety – is a problem, and not one that is solved by the scale’s disappearance.

If there’s genuine concern over those struggling with body image or eating disorders in relation to the scale, then provide a list of resources, such as psychological and nutritional counselling, support networks and peer groups, one-on-one consultation on making goals and tracking progress, next to the scale, rather than removing it altogether.

There are far better ways to cultivate a more welcoming, well-rounded atmosphere for gym-goers than the athletics department initially chose.

And the increasingly hostile sniping between sides over the merits of the scale suggest the university has only served to create an even more unsympathetic environment for those already unsure of taking part.

 

Expanded thoughts, if interested: Learning to live with the body you’re in 

On Homeopathy, Health Canada Must End The Double Standard

This column appeared on the CBC on December 11, 2016.

Until recently, homeopathic remedies sold in the United States enjoyed many of the same privileges — including the freedom to claim they could treat or cure specific ailments or diseases — as real, science-based medicine. The difference? Peddlers of homeopathy weren’t required to provide the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with any evidence whatsoever to substantiate the miraculous therapeutic claims their products made. The same has largely been the case in Canada.

It was an abhorrent oversight by agencies tasked to protect consumers’ well-being, and one that only now being addressed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In a statement issued last month, the FTC announced that homeopathic remedies, like all medications sold, must provide “competent and reliable scientific evidence” for all health-related claims, including, most importantly, “claims that a product can treat specific conditions.”

New labels

Absent that, in the U.S., homeopathic drugs will have to wear a label indicating that: “1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works; and 2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.”

Homeopathy is, as Steven Novella, academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, unambiguously describes it, an “unadulterated pseudoscience … a prescientific medical philosophy.”

Its underpinning theory is that “like cures like.” Homeopathic drugs are made using trace elements of substances that cause symptoms in healthy people. Those elements are then diluted entirely out of existence, priced at a premium and sold as inert “remedies.” Infinite dilutions of poison ivy would be sold as the treatment for a persistent itch or chronic rash, for instance.

The idea is that water carries a “memory” of substances it has come into contact with — a theory that defies the basic principles of biology, physics, and chemistry. To find a single molecule of active substance in a 30C homeopathic solution (the dilution level of many over-the-counter homeopathic treatments), for instance, American physicist Robert L. Park notes you’d require a container of water greater than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.

Homeopathy is a lucrative business: we’re talking one where American consumers spend in excess of $3 billion per year. Yet the most comprehensive evaluation of homeopathy to date — a review of evidence from 225 studies, which met the required rigour of some 1800 published papers — concluded “there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for treating health conditions.”

The ‘natural’ choice

No amount of evidence will be sufficient to sway those hopelessly indoctrinated into pseudoscience, but many who turn to alternative medicine are driven by honest misunderstanding of how the body functions and how medicine works. Some are also driven by the appeal to nature — a seductive fallacy which argues that “natural” is inherently good, therapeutic, and pure — based on the notion that homeopathy is a natural choice.

Yet “natural” versus “synthetic” is a fundamentally false, meaningless comparison. Raspberry ketone, for instance, a purported natural “miracle fat-burner,” is a chemical extracted from various fruits and berries. It can also be synthetically made, then known as p-Hydroxybenzyl acetone. But whether “naturally sourced” or synthetically derived, it’s still C10H12O2 — a single chemical, with a set arrangement of atoms that behave in the same, identical manner. Not one, mind you, that involves “miracle fat-burning.”

That’s likely too esoteric for the average consumer, but clear labels indicating a lack of scientific backing surely is not. Canada, however, has only gone so far as to require labels for nosode products (which are touted as vaccines) and homeopathic remedies for cough, cold and flu marketed to children 12 and under. Everything else can stand on pharmacy shelves, right next to legitimate medicine, and sold as fanciful medicinal alternatives. Fortunately, Health Canada has just recently signalled that it’s ready to start cracking down on claims that have not be scientifically proven.

Health professionals have been in the trenches of this dystopia for some time — their fight for reason made increasingly difficult by governments’ own normalizing of pseudoscience. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, has rightly called for Health Canada to follow the FTC’s lead in requiring proper labelling to “ensure the Canadian public gets scientifically accurate information about the health care products and services they are buying.”

This isn’t complicated. Holding practitioners of alternative medicine — and the products they sell — to the same rigorous standards we apply to physicians, pharmacists and all other certified healthcare professionals is certainly not asking too much. If the U.S. can do it, why can’t we?

 

A Most Undignified Death

This column ran in The National Post on January 20, 2016.

The Supreme Court hearing that granted the Liberals a four-month extension to review assisted-dying legislation last week brought out the usual coterie of critics, many of them religious. We are being warned about slippery slopes and disposable lives. Some of the concerns are fair, others essentially boil down to, “My God wouldn’t want you to do this, so it should be illegal.”

One of the more interesting, and credible, reactions, however, from those who would restrict access to euthanasia on moral grounds is that better palliative care is all that’s needed to fully tend to those in the end-stages of life. There is some truth in this — Canada does need a better palliative-care system, for those who’d wish to take that route.

This argument, however, ignores the uncomfortable reality that a sort of medically facilitated death is already well-established in the medical system, but through the cruellest of possible methods. Simply put, our terminally ill are permitted to starve themselves to death.

This isn’t a decision made lightly by any involved — the patient, their family, or the medical professionals tasked with keeping the patient “comfortable” — and it’s an excruciating experience for all. The body can, for a short time, rely on reserves and stores to maintain some basic level of function. In time, though, it begins to consume itself, seeking to convert any usable tissue, including organs, to fuel.

In 2013, I found myself in an unfortunate and frightening medical situation which, by the grace of God, I survived. When I was in hospital, I had a roommate, a woman in her late-70s who, as I fended off sleep for the very real possibility I’d not wake up, sought for herself a very different outcome.

My situation, a gastro-intestinal disease that took hold and spread, making digestion of food impossible, was not terminal. Or, at least, was not meant to be. Her cancer, though, was, and was as at such an advanced state she could no longer handle the daily intubations; the constant poking and prodding and needling; the unrelating physical and mental agony. She was far beyond treatment, and she now had an intestinal obstruction which required surgery to rectify — one which would not add quality to her remaining days, assuming she survived the operation, but would simply allow for the continued oral intake of nutrition.

The alternative was to sustain life through intravenous feeding (TPN). I’d already had that PICC line inserted — a long, specialized IV threaded from the bend in the elbow, up the the arm, and directly into the heart — to deliver basic nutrition.

She was entirely of sound mind and had all other affairs in order, and her family didn’t object when she refused to consent to either the surgery or the central line, asking instead to be allowed to die.

We shared the same highly-skilled surgeon. He was tasked with directing two very different roads of treatment: fighting to keep my body supplied with nutrition while I recovered, and overseeing her demise.

Both our bodies were self-catabolizing. Both were in various states of multi-organ failure — the putrid, potent, unmistakeable stench of renal failure was inescapable and unbearable. For me, the threat of imminent death was terrifying. For her, it was a most merciful gift — an escape from the hell of a body in the final stages of rebellion.

Her suffering was considerable, and I lay in silence, listening as her anguish intensified. Sometimes what I heard carried over into dreams. When asleep, I heard the very real sound of nurses struggling to place a tube in her esophagus, played out in my own shallow nightmare in which I was choking on my own and failing to breathe.

After a series of conversations between my roommate, our surgeon, and her family, she was moved to a private, under-no-circumstances-to-be-disturbed room directly across from the one we’d shared, where she’d quietly deteriorate and rapidly emaciate. Her son held vigil, stoic, at first, and then less so.

The end was neither merciful, painless, nor swift. It took weeks for her to die. Her pain eventually came to an end, but her son’s never will. Had euthanasia been available, as she wished it was, it would have spared my roommate the drawn-out ravaging, and her son the unnecessary, additional trauma. The end result, of course, would have been identical.

It’s not clear to me where the ultimate line should be drawn in terms of age or disease, or what would constitute sufficient level of suffering — or how the extent of which would be measured. These issues are, to state the obvious, complicated. But as the government works to draft new assisted-suicide legislation, it’s essential people be aware of what is currently the status-quo, and why it cannot be allowed to stand. We’ve had a form of medically facilitated death in Canada for years. It is far crueller, but no less fatal, than a quick, merciful needle.

 

A Word To My Critics:

To those accusing me of seeking to defend Blatchford, as intent to undermine Guthrie/Reilly, or as somehow  actively championing an odious twitter persona I’m on the record as having no sympathy for:

My intention in writing this piece (an incredibly shortened, edited version of my lengthy submission) was to promote an honest discussion about the case itself, because either ruling will only serve to further inflame the matter.

Because all parties involved (and their supporters) are so emotionally-invested in the outcome, it seems my submission has been taken as having some nefarious, ulterior motive.

After having read through the documents made public, I am genuinely concerned about the fallout should a verdict not favour the complainants.

A few things to note:

There were multiple inconsistencies during testimony, incomplete/one-sided Storifys of conversations/dialogue between Elliott and Guthrie/Reilly which misrepresented who initiated the exchange; a “shifting evidentiary foundation” due to the repeated locking/unlocking of the  – until then – fully accessible to the Court, public Twitter accounts of the complainants.

None of this diminishes the complainants’ perceived sense of fear, nor does it excuse Eliiott’s alleged behaviour. What It does, however, is serve to remind of the complexity of this case. Asking questions, discussing the case in its entirety, doesn’t equate disbelieving or blaming the victim.

To the contrary, should the judge rule in Elliott’s favour, it ensures the focus remains on the Crown’s potential shortcomings rather than the validity of the complainants’ experience.

One can believe the allegations, even support the complainants, while recognizing evidentiary weaknesses.

It should be noted the Crown offered no final verbal submission, nor was a written submission made publicly available.

Women already face undue suspicion when alleging intimidation, harassment, or sexual assault. And given the slim chances of a satisfactory legal outcome, when weighed against the emotional investment and inevitable fallout many decide it isn’t worth the trade-off, so violations go unreported.

I worry that an unwelcome verdict will make matters worse, and that’s why a thorough examination of the case, in my view, is crucial.

Given the blowback, in the future, when writing on contentious issues/situations, I’ll post to this blog so I can go on at length and ensure a thorough – and clear – reading on the matter.

UPDATE:

Just published: “Crown lawyer Marnie Goldenberg submitted her closing statement to the court in writing and declined media requests to release copies. She granted Metro permission to read the statement on Tuesday.”

“Mr. Elliot sent copious amounts of obsessive, harassing tweets where he tweeted ‘at’ the complainants, mentioned their handles, mentioned the hashtags created by Ms. Guthrie, sent subtweets at the complainants, monitored their feeds, etc. He did this knowing that they blocked him and that they did not want contact with him,” Goldenberg wrote.

Citing Guthrie’s testimony, Goldenberg took issue with the defence position that Guthrie and Reilly must not have been truly afraid of Elliott because they called him out — even taunted him — on Twitter.

“There is no perfect victim,” Guthrie said at trial. “And there’s no perfect way to respond to being stalked, and I am… You don’t always just hide away. Sometimes you fight back a little bit.”

“Why should the complainants not be allowed to speak out against their harasser and warn others?” Goldenberg wrote. “Why should the complainants be criticized for speaking with their friends about being harassed? … (They) should be allowed to do so without fear that the actions of the harasser will be minimized. Just because they speak out, does not mean that they are not fearful and the harasser’s actions are not aggravating and serious.”

“Respectfully, there is nothing wrong with Ms. Guthrie being proactive. She is a strong articulate woman who wanted to speak out for others. She cared about other women and ‘their right to be on the internet without having their boundaries crossed by a creep,’” Goldenberg continued.

————

My submission as it appeared in the National Post on July 22, 2015:

Regardless of the verdict in the Guthrie case, we’ve already lost

An emotionally-charged criminal harassment case whose outcome, according to National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, risks serious ramifications for freedom of speech online, dates back to 2012; that was the year when Stephanie Guthrie decided to punish Bendilin Spurr.

Spurr, a young man from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., created a disturbing video game entitled “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” in which players punch an image of the noted feminist in the face with bloody results. The game delighted a self-styled group of “Men’s Rights Activists” (MRAs) — online commentators on perpetual watch for what they perceive as feminist provocations.

If MRAs are the extreme end of an increasingly savage online culture war, Guthrie and her fellow co-complainant, Heather Reilly, are their natural enemies. Engaged and prominent online feminists, both have been subjected to threats and harassment by MRAs — especially after they targeted Spurr.

Some of the abuse levelled at her from these activists (although not from the defendant in this case) was profoundly horrific. So much so that, in May 2014, Blatchford wrote:

“There isn’t a female writer, in the world probably, who isn’t routinely inundated with this sort of misogynist hate mail … Social media has only made a cruel old world more so, for everyone, but the viciousness of the communications my female colleagues and I receive, particularly when we dare to take a contrarian view of something, is stunning. While I am inured to it, it enrages me that Ms. Guthrie, just 29 and such a bold spirit, should feel it too. I can’t tell you how sad this made me that this truly great young woman is being subjected to this stuff.”

Under attack from the MRAs, Guthrie fought back, suggesting a “doxing” campaign against Spurr — Internet slang for publishing his personal information — and contacted his potential employers to make them aware of his online behaviour. It was this step that would form the crux of the fight between Guthrie and Gregory Allen Elliott.

Elliott is regarded by many as a notorious Twitter “troll” – an online commenter who deliberately, often profanely, seeks to provoke a hostile reaction. Elliott strongly disagreed with Guthrie’s tactics, and said so, crassly, numerous times. Guthrie took steps to block Elliott from accessing her tweets, but he was able to largely circumvent them and continue engaging with her and her online compatriots. It is those online activities that constitute the alleged stalking and harassment. (Elliott has also been charged with breaking a peace bond in relation to his sustained tweeting.)

A verdict in this matter is expected in the fall. Blatchford has been covering the proceedings for the years that they have ground on. In her past writings, while never masking her exasperation for the behaviour of all parties involved, she seemed empathetic to Guthrie.

That was, until last week.

In a column that drew heated online criticism, Blatchford called Guthrie’s perceived vulnerability into question, doubting just how much Guthrie felt she was at risk. Specifically, she wrote, “The criminal harassment charge is rooted in the alleged victim’s perception of the offending conduct … (if) the alleged victims ‘reasonably, in all the circumstances fear for their safety’, that’s good enough.” “Elliott’s chief sin,” Blatchford continues, was that “he dared to disagree with the two young feminists and political activists.”

To suggest, as Blatchford appears to do, that harassment without explicit threats of physical or sexual harm should not qualify as criminal, is troublesome. Further, while much of Blatchford’s earlier writing on this topic had made clear that Guthrie was unquestionably the target of vile abuse from MRA activists, generally (although not Elliott, specifically). But that broader context was largely absent last week. Yes, a columnist only has so many words to cover a topic and content must be sacrificed. But absent a deeper explanation of what Guthrie has sincerely alleged to have endured, it’s easy to conclude that there’s nothing to see here.

And that isn’t so. If nothing else, the fact that the police and Crown pursued charges in the first place suggest the behaviour was beyond simple, even rude, disagreement, doesn’t it?

That being said, some of the backlash against Blatchford was misguided — particularly suggestions that Blatchford was personally responsible for online anger directed at Guthrie. Indeed, Guthrie has, sadly, been the target of that kind of abuse for years.

Guthrie may have been subject to yet another barrage of death threats and harassment at the hands of the MRA crowd in the wake of Blatchford’s column, but to suggest Blatchford intentionally incited this retaliation is unfair. Nor is Blatchford responsible for a campaign by a group of MRAs to cover Elliott’s legal bills — even though the campaign quotes from her writings on the matter.

Though I’m not personally familiar with either complainant, I have admired what I’ve seen of Guthrie’s public persona from afar. However, Guthrie and Reilly do assuredly belong to a subset of feminists who employ tactics that are not only unhelpful, but terribly counterproductive. They perceive themselves to be an online authority of feminism — they play to a virtual audience and engage in a culture of “calling out,” online mobbing, and doxing. They justify these actions by relying on the moral certainty of their personal cause.

Throughout the trial, Blatchford reported on the fact that Guthrie copped to her own bullying tactics. She’s been, arguably, as vindictive online as Elliott himself. It was, after all, with malicious intent that Guthrie sought to “sic the internet” on Spurr, testifying she “would not feel sorry” if his life were ruined, and would feel no sense of responsibility had he been driven to suicide following her call to mob. In her view, he’d have brought it on himself.

Should charges against Elliott be dismissed, Guthrie and Reilly, and their group of vocal public supporters, will be inundated with more misogynistic attacks from angry MRAs, including threats of rape or murder. It’s happened before. It will again. On the other hand, if the judge should rule that Elliott’s behaviour was criminal, thus vindicating Guthrie and Reilly, the response will be … pretty much the same.

As for Elliott, even if he’s acquitted, chances are his life will have been irrevocably damaged.

While we wait for the verdict, it’s worth nothing that this trial has become a proxy war between extremes — a battle between hard-line feminists and MRAs. This brutal online battle will continue to escalate, hardening hearts and coarsening our public debate.

To that end, regardless of the verdict, we’ve already lost.

 

Address This Code

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on May 25, 2015.

In 2013, Kimberly Hall, Director of Women’s Ministry at All Saints Presbyterian Church, wrote an open letter to teen girls who, in her view, were tempting her sons into “impure thoughts” through social media.

“If you are friends with a Hall boy on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, then you are friends with the whole family,” wrote Hall. “The reason we have these (sometimes awkward) family conversations around the table is that we care about our sons … You don’t want the world to see you primarily in this sexual way, do you? If you post a sexy selfie (we all know the kind), or an inappropriate YouTube video – even once – it’s curtains.

“I know that sounds so old-school, but we are hoping to raise men with a strong moral compass, and men of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls … young men are fighting the daily uphill battle to keep their minds clear, and their thoughts praiseworthy.

“Girls, it’s not too late … run to your accounts and take down the closed-door bedroom selfies that make it too easy for friends to see you in only one dimension.

Hall’s missive went viral, and she was lauded as wise and courageous for her temerity in telling this generation of young women how impure they’ve revealed themselves to be; nothing but harlots out to tempt the moral convictions of proper, decent young men.

Rather than helping her sons develop a “strong, moral compass” to navigate relationships, to respect and regard female peers as more than objects of sexual desire, Hall places the onus for her sons’ thoughts and actions on the girls with whom they interact.

Despite Hall’s suggestion, this is not simply “old school” — it’s rape-culture. A mentality so pervasive it’s regularly excused as a norm, most recently demonstrated by a pair of controversies surrounding school dress codes, where uncovered shoulders, a hint of thigh, were deemed “too distracting” for male students who, evidently, cannot achieve academic excellence in the vicinity of female flesh.

In New Brunswick, 17-year-old Lauren Wiggins was given detention for her floor-length halter dress and subsequently suspended for protesting the school’s dress-code double-standard.

Days later, a Guelph-area principal was forced to apologize for advising female students to “dress cool, not skanky.”

Such attitudes not only demean the girls, but they insult their male peers by treating them as incapable of controlling their behaviour.

And by policing attire rather than working to modify improper reactions/interactions, a dangerous, blame-the-vicim mentality is perpetuated.

If we want girls to develop a strong sense of self-worth and self-respect, we must allow them to become comfortable with their bodies; to experiment with different styles, learn what they feel comfortable wearing, including how much – or little – skin they feel confident in baring.

Comprehensive sexual education, as is set to begin across Ontario this fall, can help girls develop this confidence and learn to be the sole keepers of their bodies while, along with their male counterparts, acquire the skills needed to foster healthy friendships and relationships, understand consent, and judge the appropriateness of behaviours — including what a woman’s dress does or does not invite.

Reforming rape-culture, retiring the fetishization of sexual or moral purity – real or perceived – and developing equal standards to which men and women are held may seem a daunting task, but in some instances, much progress can be made by making clear these two simple truths: There is more to a man than his sexual desire; more to a woman than a moment’s attire.

 

Freedom Of Religion vs. License To Discriminate

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on April 8, 2015. 

There’s a fundamental misunderstanding, or perhaps, a deliberate mischaracterization, of what constitutes religious freedom in a pluralistic society; of the role governments should play in protecting religious liberties, the extent to which citizens are obligated to facilitate the customs of another, and what it means to be unjustly targeted for holding contrary views.

On March 25, a cadre of evangelical leaders and activists took to Parliament Hill to decry “unjust infringements of the State” against Christianity, assail the perceived granting of rights to “others” at the expense of their own, lament being violated by “activist” courts, ostracized by business leaders, and vilified by media. MP James Lunney cited their grievances in his withdrawing from the Conservative caucus to better fight the “unprecedented attack” on his Christian beliefs.

These self-appointed spokesmen of Christianity, the beliefs/values they espouse, their connections and affiliations, merit a deeper examination than space permits, but the following brief should offer some insight into why they, and the various, inter-connected organizations they represent, feel so spurned by modernity:

Bill Prankard of the Bill Prankard Evangelistic Association is a faith-healer who claims that faith through the laying-on-of-hands has cured everything from quadriplegia to cancer; he has written books claiming that the power of God holds the cure for all ailments. He has bemoaned that while Christians “stand on guard” for Canada, “other groups have been coming with agendas that are very anti-Christian and anti-God and they’ve been doing a lot of stuff in our nation. I believe it’s time for Canadians to rise up and to take back what the enemy is stealing.”

André Schutten is a lawyer for the Association For Reformed Political Action. When Alberta lawmakers passed legislation affirming students’ rights to form gay-straight alliances, Schutten declared such a law “would make the Bolsheviks proud.”

And of course, there’s Canada Christian College president Charles McVety, whose most recent claim of religious persecution was evidenced by the coming-together of major corporations in committing to diversity and inclusivity in the workplace.

Seriously.

The concept of religious freedom has long been exploited to justify discrimination: Many religious conservatives, for instance, deemed God “the original segregationist,” and when the couple at the heart of Loving v. Virginia (1967), the landmark Supreme Court case striking down America’s ban on interracial marriage, were initially charged in violating “anti-miscegenation” laws, Judge Leon Bazile contended “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

As America’s march toward full marriage equality presses on, the Supreme Court set to rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage shortly, Conservative lawmakers, backed by Christian leaders like James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and Tony Perkins, are scrambling to preempt a ruling many expect as inevitable, enacting legislation under the guise of protecting religious liberties which would grant the right to refuse service to those who might “burden” the conscience.

As the recent backlash in Indiana against such license to discriminate has shown, however, the majority will not stand for replacing White with Straight on “[X] Only” signs.

Given the ongoing, real persecution faced by religious minorities – Christians hunted down by Islamic extremists throughout the Middle East; Muslims slaughtered by Christian militias and Buddhist extremists in Central African Republic and Burma respectively – it’s appalling that such affluent, privileged members of society cast themselves as the victims of tyrannical government; oppressed by an “overly-secular, militant atheistic” society.

Much to traditionalists’ dismay, society has progressed, and those who continue to preach hatred, foster intolerance, are finally learning the Bible is no longer the impenetrable shield it once was.