By Dave Hood
After being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) in 1991, and then experiencing a rapid decline in health, Sue Rodriguez fought for the right to die all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. She wished to die with dignity, on her own terms, when it was right for her. To achieve this, she would require the assistance of someone else.
Despite her brave efforts, Rodriguez failed to convince the Federal government or Supreme Court to overturn sections of the Criminal Code prohibiting euthanasia in Canada. The court stated that it must uphold the sanctity of life and protect the vulnerable from unwanted death. She passed away in 1994.
Yet, her court battle and media attention did manage to raise public awareness and alter public opinion about the right to die. According to a recent Angus Read public opinion poll, taken in November 2014, 80% of Canadians now support physician-assisted suicide, under certain conditions and safeguards.
However, the Federal government and criminal legal system have considered all types of euthanasia both immoral and unlawful. In Canada, assisting someone in committing suicide is a criminal offence, and can result in a 14 year prison term. Many other governments around the world, such as the United States, oppose the right to die, as well as physician-assisted suicide. Like Canada, most other countries have laws to punish anyone, doctor or private citizen, who assists someone in taking their own life, even when the sick person is experiencing unbearable pain and suffering, and nearing death.
On Friday, February 7th, 2015, a historic and landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the existing laws in the criminal code prohibiting the physician assisted suicide are “cruel,” and therefore unconstitutional. The court stated that people who are experiencing unbearable physical and mental pain, a declining terminal illness might be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. The Federal Parliament of Canada now has 12 months to respond to the decision of the highest court.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, the Federal Parliament has three options. It can write and pass new laws embracing the court’s ruling, making physician-assisted suicide legal. Or it can do nothing, which would mean that the provincial legislatures and medical regulatory boards would have to write their own euthanasia legislation, and this legislation would have to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. It could decide to invoke the “Notwithstanding clause,” which would allow the Federal government to ignore the Supreme Court’s decision. This last option seems unlikely given the public opinion’s support for the right to die with dignity and physician-assisted suicide. To ignore the Supreme Court’s decision would most likely generate a political backlash, resulting in an election defeat of the current Conservative government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Pros and Cons of Physician-Assisted Suicide
In 1982, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow euthanasia. Only a few other countries have followed, such as Belgium and Columbia. In the United States, two Oregon and Washington are the only states that have passed laws that legalize physician-assisted suicide. The issues dealing with the end of life, such as right to die, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, bring about controversy and heated debate. Governments, political parties, doctors, private citizens, religious groups, lobbyist groups, each have their own opinion on euthanasia. There are no easy answers or solutions.
Why do so many people support the right to die and physician-assisted suicide? There are several reasons. First, legalizing physician-assisted suicide gives a terminally ill person who is competent the right to die with dignity, on their own terms, when the time is right.
Secondly, physician- assisted suicide gives the terminally ill who are suffering unbearable pain a legal means to escape their suffering. To deny a person the right to die is often harshly cruel, like torture.
Just as we have the right to freedom of religion, right to an abortion, right to free speech, we should have the right to end our lives when life becomes unbearable. Each of us should have the right to determine when our life should end, if we are terminally ill or suffering unbearable pain and in a irreversible declining health.
Keeping people alive when they are terminally ill and at the end stage of their illness results in enormous financial costs to the health care system. Government funds could be used to assist those who are seriously ill, but not terminally ill.
Lastly, some physicians practise passive euthanasia by withholding medical treatment or medicine when a person is near the end of a terminal illness. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide makes lawful what is already practiced covertly by some doctors.
Why do so many people oppose euthanasia? First, we must protect the sanctity of life. Euthanasia devalues human life and is counter to the view that life is precious and sacred. Doctors take a Hippocratic Oath to protect life, “do no harm,” and to prolong life.
Some believe that legalizing physician -assisted suicide will lead us down a slippery slope, resulting in people who are not at the end stage or their illness and not experiencing unbearable pain and suffering, the right to end their life. Perhaps a person might feign pain due to depression and then seek physician-assisted-suicide. How do we ensure that the right to die is used with extreme caution?
Many religions consider euthanasia and suicide morally wrong. For instance, the Catholic Church values the sanctity of life. As a result, the church believes that euthanasia is a crime and sin against God.
Many doctors oppose it for reasons of conscience. Some believe that carrying out physician-assisted suicide is like committing murder.
What Should Be Done?
Rather than implement the Notwithstanding clause, or allow each province to make its own laws, the Federal government must comply with the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada, rewrite sections of the Criminal Code , and legalize physician-assisted suicide.
A person who is suffering from an incurable and serious illness, disease, disability should have the right to die under certain conditions. First, an adult person who seeks the right to die must be competent, not suffering from defect of the mind, mental illness, such as depression.
The person should have the right to die when the illness, disease, disability is causing constant, unbearable pain and suffering. The person is near the end stage of their illness or advanced physical and mental state of decline.
Only a trained doctor can assist the terminally ill person in the ending of their life. Doctors must also have the right to refuse to participate in physician-assisted suicide for reasons of conscience.
There should also be end-of-life clinics, such as those that exist in the Netherlands, where terminally ill people have the option of going when their own doctor refuses to assist them. The clinic would include teams of trained doctors and nurses who would assist the terminally ill person in ending their life.
We live in a secular society, and so faith is a private matter. Religious groups have no right to impose their will on those who don’t support their values or beliefs. The right to die is a matter of conscience, a personal decision by a competent person. It must be protected by law.
We must balance the sanctity of life with the right to die with dignity.
• Globe and Mail, Right to Life is Not a Duty to Live, Sean Fine, Feb 7, 2015-02-15
• Toronto Star. Feb 7th, 2015. Time to Act on Dying, Editorial
• Globe and Mail. Feb 7, 2015. Supreme Court Gets it Right.
• Folio: Right to Die. Feb 7, 2015, by Kevin Van Passon
• Toronto Star. Life Death by Laura Hoflinger, Feb. 8, 2015
• Toronto Star. Death: A Basic Right, Feb 7, 2015 by Tonda Maccharles