Facing down death with dignity

By Liv Ingram

On Oct. 10, 2013, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld Canada’s ban on doctor-assisted suicide. The issue has been in legal limbo following a 2012 B.C. Supreme Court decision which ruled that forbidding doctor-assisted suicide violated the charter rights of terminally ill Canadians.

While B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith declared the law prohibiting assisted suicide to be “discriminatory, disproportionate and overbroad,” she suspended her ruling for one year to allow Parliament time to implement legislation regarding the issue. However, instead of supporting her decision, the B.C. Court of Appeal struck down the ruling in a 2–1 decision. The decision is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

While dying is inevtiable, the ability to die with dignity is important. There are brave Canadians in terrible pain who need our support if they are to have any control over their final hours.

The case was launched by several plaintiffs, including ALS sufferer Gloria Taylor, and the children of Kay Carter, who traveled to Switzerland in 2010 to seek assisted suicide. Minutes after the decision, the plaintiff’s lawyer Grace Pastine said, “We think the federal government has no place at the bedside of seriously and incurably ill Canadians who have made firm decisions about the amount of care they wish to receive at the end of life.”

This is not the first time this issue has made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1993, Sue Rodriguez, who also suffered from ALS, appealed to the court for a doctor-assisted suicide. The Supreme Court denied her request. In an interview Rodriguez said, “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” In 1994, Rodriguez took her life with the help of an anonymous physician.

Canada’s current legislation raises important questions about how much autonomy and control an individual has over their life. While there are numerous laws in place to ensure that Canadians enjoy the freedom to live their lives as they wish, those freedoms do not extend to their deathbeds. Although Quebec has recently proposed a bill that would permit assisted suicide, it remains illegal across Canada.

Days after the B.C. Court of Appeal decision, a survey released by the Environics Institute states 68 per cent of Canadians would support a law allowing doctor-assisted suicide in Canada. Currently, there are only a few places where assisted suicide is legal, such as Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, as well as three U.S. states. However, Switzerland is the only country that allows non-residents to access the procedure.

When an individual deems their own life to no longer have meaning because of a devastating medical condition, forcing them to stay alive is ludicrous. If a person wishes to end their life, they should be allowed to do so in the most comfortable and painless manner possible.

It’s difficult to understand the logic in forcing people to suffer unnecessarily. When an animal suffers, it is humane to make a quick end, but unlike animals, we are actually capable of expressing the desire to die. People who seek medically assisted suicide, and the doctors who have the compassion to help them, should have governmental permission.

Since Canada grants citizens rights on a variety of other controversial issues — such as abortion and same-sex marriage — understanding why the government takes such a conservative stance towards assisted suicide is difficult.

In an emotional video shot eight days before he died of a brain tumour, renowned microbiologist Dr. Donald Low made a plea for Canada to legalize doctor-assisted suicide. “I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours and I think they would change that opinion,” Low said. “I’m just frustrated not to be able to have control of my own life. Not being able to have the decision for myself when enough is enough.”

The Swiss suicide organization, Dignitas, highlights the importance for individual autonomy on their website, “People who inhabit a country should never be degraded by being considered the property of the state. They are the bearers of human dignity, and this is characterized most strongly when a person decides his or her own fate. It is therefore unacceptable for a state or its individual authorities or courts to choose the fate of its citizens.” Individuals deserve the freedom to make decisions around the deeply personal issue of death.

One common objection to assisted suicide is that if permission to do so will snowball into pressure on the elderly to die. However, obtaining a doctor-assisted suicide is not as simple as dropping someone off at the hospital and requesting the procedure. The patient must undergo rigorous processes to ensure they understand their decision. In Switzerland, Dignitas states that “patients must be of sound judgement and possess a minimum level of physical mobility (in order to self-administer the drug).” Furthermore, patients must have “a terminal illness, and/or unendurable incapacitating disability, and/or unbearable and uncontrollable pain.” The patient must also submit a detailed letter outlining their decision for assisted suicide, a document outlining their personal and family circumstances, along with up-to-date medical records. The patient must meet with a doctor on two separate occasions to affirm their choice. Only if the patient satisfies all of these requirements will Dignitas approve the procedure. Dignitas has been operating legally since 1998 without major complaints from the Swiss government. With a legal framework based on this proven model, there is no reason that Canada could not also have a legally safe option for those who wish to seek assisted suicide.

There are inconsistencies being overlooked in the medical field. An unresponsive patient may be taken off life support to die of dehydration and malnutrition. But death by dehydration is prolonged and painful.

Doctor-assisted suicide is not so different from cutting life support. In both cases, the individual dies due to intervention from a medical professional. The only difference is that in assisted suicide the doctor actively helps the patient, rather than letting them die by lack of nutrition or water.

To suggest that these individuals simply commit suicide is callous. These individuals are fighting for the right to die with dignity. Suicide can be a deeply traumatic experience for both the individual and the family, and it ultimately leaves the

individual to die alone. To die with dignity is to die at the place and time of one’s choosing, with loved ones nearby.

While assisted suicide will likely remain a contentious issue for some time, Canada’s rising median age ensures that this issue will not remain a silent one for long. Canada’s elderly are steadily comprising more and more of the population. According to the 2011 census, 22.8 per cent of the population will be 65 and older by 2031. That number is projected to increase to one quarter — 25.5 per cent — by 2061. Hopefully we will soon be able to have an open and mature dialogue about this issue so that Canadians’ right to choose will be respected, not restricted.

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