- Published on Monday, 28 November 2011 07:13
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 2695
In Canada, the Charter of rights protects our liberty and by implication our autonomy and that should include our right to die when and how we want. But there are laws that prevent doctors, the experts in life and death, from helping. If I asked a doctor for a prescription that I would take when he was not around that would kill me, he is forbidden from doing that. If I have a terminal illness, he can make my death comfortable - that's what palliative care is all about. He can watch me die; he can kill the pain but he can't help me enjoy the process. Steve Paikin recently conducted a discussion session on his TVO show, the Agenda, which included the chair of a Royal Society group commissioned to report on assisted suicide. Since they were experts on the subject, there is no surprise that they recommended that the law be changed to allow doctors to assist a competent person to die how and when they want and assisted by a doctor.
But a doctor on Steve's Panel objected to the concept that he might be asked to do that. As Steve Paikin put it, he felt his reputation and professional responsibility were more important than the wish of his patients. I would have described his attitude as saying "That's not my job!". He did have a point in saying that Doctors do not have any special skill in ethics and should not be asked to make such decisions. But no-one's really asking a Doctor to decide, just to help anyone who has decided.
But there are two separate situations - you could fail to help someone dying from a disease or you could administer a fatal drug. The first is actually legal although not everyone realises this. If you are on a respirator and ask to have it removed, they must accede to your wish. You can refuse to be kept alive but cannot ask to be killed. This distinction could easily (and was) described as splitting hairs. What's the moral difference between allowing something to happen that you know will happen and making it happen? There is a difference but it's minor.
To me, the major case against assisted suicide is that it should not be necessary if we had good palliative care available to everyone - but Canada does not yet have that. If there were good palliative care, then we could be assured of dying in a coma or at least in no pain. No assurance of quality of life but a step in the right direction. The biggest reason people want suicide is to avoid a "bad death".
Although the panel was divided with some for and some against - there were two remarkable things about the discussion:
- No-one thought that suicide was wrong for others - they seemed to see it as a personal choice. Which it is. They just differed on whether doctors (or others) should be allowed to help.
- No-one brought god into the discussion. But these are rational Canadians! There were no priests (or similar) on the panel.
This video is longer than most (on this site) but if you have the time, is worth watching.
There is currently a court case in B.C. that is to decide on this subject. The case involves Gloria Taylor but the case has not yet been decided although it will likely end up in the Supreme Court - more here.
Download the Royal Society original report - issued November 2011
15 June 2012
Assisted-suicide ban struck down by B.C. court
A British Columbia Supreme Court judge has declared Canada's laws against physician-assisted suicide unconstitutional because they discriminate against the physically disabled.
In a 395-page ruling released Friday June 15, 2012, Justice Lynn Smith addressed the situation faced by Gloria Taylor, a B.C. woman who was one of five plaintiffs in the case seeking the legal right to doctor-assisted suicide.
Taylor has ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease, and she sought the ruling to allow her doctor to help her end her life before she becomes incapacitated. The case was fast-tracked in August because of her illness.
In her ruling, Smith noted suicide itself is not illegal, and therefore the law against assisted suicide contravenes Section 15 of the charter, which guarantees equality, because it denies physically disabled people like Taylor the same rights as able-bodied people who can take their own lives, she ruled.
"The impact of that distinction is felt particularly acutely by persons such as Ms. Taylor, who are grievously and irremediably ill, physically disabled or soon to become so, mentally competent and who wish to have some control over their circumstances at the end of their lives," Smith writes.
"The distinction is discriminatory … because it perpetuates disadvantage."
Smith also says the law deprives both people like Taylor and those who try to help them of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Section 7 of the charter.
She argued the legislation could force a person to take their life sooner than they want to in order to kill themselves while still physically capable.
The effect of the ruling will not be immediate, because Smith suspended it for one year in order to give Parliament time to take whatever steps it sees fit to draft and consider new legislation.
But in the meantime, Smith granted Taylor a constitutional exception to seek physician-assisted suicide if she chooses to end her life.
Smith's ruling also addresses the risks raised by defendants in the case.
"The evidence shows that risks exist," she wrote. "But that they can be very largely avoided through carefully designed, well-monitored safeguards."
At the end of the decision, Smith also stipulates that her ruling only apply to "competent, fully informed, non-ambivalent adult persons who personally (not through a substituted decision-maker) request physician-assisted death, are free from coercion and undue influence and are not clinically depressed."
In Canada, it has been illegal to counsel, aid or abet a person to commit suicide, and the offence carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison. However, three U.S. states and four European countries do allow it.
It will probably also be appealed.
June 17, 2012
The Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver has predictably called for the ruling to be appealed. Ottawa Citizen.
Update October 5, 2012
Gloria Taylor died Thursday October 4, 2012 from a perforated colon, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) said in a release Friday October 5th. Taylor was 64.
The federal government launched an appeal in August and also asked the B.C. Appeal Court to overturn Taylor's exemption, but Justice Jo-Ann Prowse rejected that request.
In a written decision, Prowse said revoking Taylor's exemption would cause irreparable harm to Taylor, something that would outweigh the federal government's interests. Prowse acknowledged Taylor has become a symbol in the right-to-die case, but the judge said that Taylor is also a person who shouldn't be sacrificed for the "greater good."
Taylor's mother, Anne Fomenoff, said in a statement issued by the civil liberties association that her daughter will be missed. "But we are grateful that Gloria was given the solace of knowing that she had a choice about how and when she would die … Gloria was able to live her final days free from the fear that she would be sentenced to suffer cruelly in a failing body." Fomenoff said she was immensely proud of her "feisty and determined daughter."
BCCLA litigation director Grace Pastine called Taylor a "heroic woman." "Even as her own body failed her, she fought for all Canadians to have choice and dignity at the end of life. "She spent the last days of her life tirelessly advocating to change the law."
Pastine said the lawsuit that Taylor was involved with will continue.