Two people come to mind when considering the recent Supreme Court decision on physician-assisted suicide (PAS): Kay Carter and Sue Rodriguez; the former suffering from spinal stenosis, the latter from Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. Both took their fight to the Supreme Court; Rodriguez in 1991 and Carter in 2014/15. Both were experiencing a rapid decline in health and mobility and an increase in pain, with a reliance upon others to help with the basics of staying alive.
In the case of Rodriguez, the Supreme Court dismissed her plea, stating that the Court must uphold the sanctity of life. Rodriguez would be left to suffer till the days leading up to her death. Carter’s determination to end her life led her to Dignitas, a medical clinic in Switzerland where physician-assisted death is legal. On Jan. 15, 2015, Carter became the 10th Canadian to end her life in this manner.
It seems that her fight, along with the memories of Rodriguez’s fight with the Supreme Court and the extensive media coverage, changed the public perception of assisted suicide. In late 2014, 80 per cent of Canadians agreed that we should legally have the right to die by physician-assisted suicide.
Assisted suicide or euthanasia has long been a thorn in the side of most governments, with the Netherlands in 1982 becoming the first country in the world to bow to the pressure to allow euthanasia. Belgium and Luxembourg soon followed and as of Feb. 6, 2016, Canada is among those countries that allow PAS.
The Judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada on Feb 6, 2016, in conclusion:
“Section 241(b) and s. 14 of the Criminal Code unjustifiably infringe s. 7
of the Charter and are of no force or effect to the extent that they prohibit
physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly
consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable
medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes
enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the
circumstances of his or her condition.”
It has brought a myriad of issues and concerns for doctors and patients alike, especially those in palliative care, who in some cases see this as welcoming the angel of death into their wards. Some doctors have expressed concerns over the actual wording of the law and the process of assisted dying. The complexities of the law are turning some doctors away from the practice of assisted dying.
The problem for some doctors is a personal one, where if the patient meets all the requirements of assisted dying but is physically unable to take a drug himself, the doctor has to intravenously administer or inject it. Some see that as culpable homicide, while others do not.
As Canadians we have rights and freedoms that enable us to choose our religion, practise free speech, and have an abortion. Why should we not have the right to end our lives when and in a manner we want, that is not dangerous or detrimental to the public at large? The argument for keeping people alive because of the “sanctity of human life” is wearing thin with the majority of the population. Living in pain, life prolonged by expensive machines and drugs against one’s own wishes, seems to be coming to an end.
Today we live in a secular society where the church has lost its grip on power and faith is now considered a private matter. Religious groups have no right to impose their core beliefs on a society that doesn’t care or finds those beliefs offensive. The moment of death is a time of life where we will all be, sooner or later, and when it comes to determining the hour of our passing when in the face of unbearable suffering, it is a matter of private conscience and personal strength. No one can say what is right for someone else.
In 1991 the Supreme Court refused Sue Rodriguez’s request to be legally allowed assistance to die, holding up the notion of “sanctity of life,” the word “sanctity” meaning “the state or quality of being being holy, sacred, or saintly.” In 2016, the sanctity of life seems less important than the absence of prolonged suffering unto death.
By Andy Labdon