Two events this week have called the right to die question before the public. First, Gloria Taylor, a BC resident with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig ’s disease), and four others have filed suit before the Supreme Court of Canada to challenge Canada’s laws prohibiting assisted suicide. Taylor said her condition is deteriorating and she wants the ability to say when she dies.
If you are unfamiliar with ALS, it “is a rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. “ It results in the loss of the ability to move your arms, legs and body and causes the muscles in the chest and diaphragm to loss their ability to move, making it impossible to breathe without a ventilator. Most patients die from respiratory failure and the normal life expectancy of someone suffering from the disease is three to five years (for a description of ALS, its symptoms and treatments, see the National Institutes of Health web page).
This morning, a report by a Royal Society of Canada panel of six Canadian experts in bioethics, clinical medicine, health law and policy, and philosophy released a two year study on euthanasia in Canada. The panel recommended that Canadians should have the right to choose assisted suicide without legal penalty. This was based on a variety of factors, including the fact that several other jurisdictions have had euthanasia laws on the books without leading to non-voluntary or involuntary euthanasia. The recommendations stated that “Canada should have a permissive yet carefully regulated and monitored system with respect to assisted death” and that doctors and patients should have the rights as individuals to choose whether to participate in assisted suicide based on their moral beliefs. They also considered palliative care in Canada and made several recommendations on the current palliative care system.
This is the second time the question has been placed to Canadians with such national prominence. In 1993, Sue Rodriguez, also suffering from ALS, lost her case in the Supreme Court to have the assisted suicide laws overthrown in a 5-4 decision. She, with the help of an anonymous doctor, ended her own life in 1994. No charges were filed in her case.
This is a contentious issue with organizations dedicated to both the pro and con sides of the argument. Any discussion that reaches parliament probably will be heated and emotive.
My opinion on this manner is easiest expressed in terms of what treatment I would like in these circumstances. I would like the choice to say when I have decided that my time is over. I have absolutely no desire to burden my family and friends with a lingering death and leave them in a situation where their lives are on hold for the sole reason that mine is. Guess what. The world will not end because I’m not here. At some point after my passing, people will eventually move on and speeding this is a good thing. And, I would like to have a number of options available should that time come, above and beyond saying, “I’m going skiing and may not be back for a while.”
The arguments against assisted suicide have largely concerned moral standards and the potential that people may be forced to involuntarily commit suicide by doctors or relatives. Washington and Oregon states both have good laws and regulations that prevent this and the Royal Society panel found no evidence that this has occurred. Any new law permitting assisted suicide in Canada could easily incorporate the Washington and Oregon provisions.
This leaves the moral question. If, as recommended by the Royal Society, this becomes an individual decision of patient and doctor, then their moral viewpoint on the issue is the only one that should matter. My morals incorporate the belief that I should be able to choose an alternative to a long, painful death from a debilitating disease. Others feel differently. They should have the right to choose otherwise for themselves; however, there are many groups that feel that I should not have that choice for myself and I resent the arrogance, and that is exactly what it is, of those who would inflict their moral viewpoint on others.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court of Canada finds in favour of Taylor et al. If not, with the current discussion once again in the news, it is past time that parliament consider this question with an open and objective mind. I’m placing my hopes in the hands of the Supreme Court, since “parliament” and “open and objective minds” lately seem to be two concepts too far apart…