Rekindling the debate over doctor-assisted suicide

The emotional debate on the ethics and morals of euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide continue to be argued.

It was a Monday evening. Tom lay heavily sedated in palliative care in Chilliwack General Hospital. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer just two months before and immediately had surgery. But now the cancer was ravaging his body. Vital organs had shut down. His limbs were swelling.

“We have to remove the IV fluids,” the nurse said gently.

“But he needs them,” I struggled to argue.

Exactly two years before, Tom’s mom had laid in a nursing home in the final torment of Alzheimer’s disease. She had faced the same palliative procedure. I knew what the nurse meant.

“How long?” I asked not wanting to know.

“Perhaps two weeks.”

Numbed, I nodded. Then, just 12 hours later, my husband died.

Across the province and the nation, thousands of families face the agony of watching a loved one die. Some pass mercifully quickly. Others, though, may face years of pain, suffering, and devastating misery from a ravaging, fatal illness.

Such is the case for Kelowna-based Gloria Taylor who suffers amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease that robs people of their motor skills, tormenting them with increasing disability as weakening muscles and atrophy.

Following in the footsteps of ALS-sufferer Sue Rodriguez, Taylor along with two other plaintiffs appealed to the B.C. Supreme Court for the right to doctor-assisted suicide. Rodriguez failed in her mission 18 years ago, but on Friday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith ruled that the provisions in the Criminal Code making physician-assisted death illegal are invalid.

The ground-breaking ruling has opened up a national debate on euthanasia.

“Under s.52 of the Constitution Act, the provisions are declared invalid,” wrote Smith in her 395-page written judgement. “They (the plaintiffs) succeed because the provisions unjustifiably infringe the equality rights of Gloria Taylor and the rights to life, liberty and the security of the person of Gloria Taylor, Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson.”

However she stated that the operation of that declaration is suspended for one year to allow Parliament time to explore what has to be done although she gave exception in Taylor’s case.

Understandably, there is sharp division between those who support strict safeguards and absence of loopholes in upholding the right to die debate while those who don’t support it see nightmarish problems with elder abuse, inappropriate family involvement, and lack of clarity of a patient’s clear and independent intent in the final stages of life.

Doctor assisted suicide and euthanasia are not new. It is allowed in one or other form in Washington and Oregon in the U.S. and in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Aside from all the legal issues, the emotional debate on the ethics and morals of euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide continue to be argued. Smith clearly recognized that.

“The evidence shows that thoughtful and well-motivated people can and have come to different conclusions about whether physician-assisted death can be ethically justifiable,” wrote Smith. “The major medical associations in Canada, the United Kingdom, some other Commonwealth countries and the United States have all taken positions opposed to physician-assisted death.  On the other hand, some individual physicians in those countries take a different view, as do some medical associations, physicians and politicians in jurisdictions where physician-assisted death is permitted.”

But will Parliament follow through with changes?  Possibly not for some time. Either the B.C. government or federal government is expected to appeal the ruling. But in March, Quebec’s National Assembly committee released a report calling on their provincial government to legalize euthanasia along the lines in the Netherlands.

For Taylor, though, the ruling is a victory giving her the choice to die with dignity in her own way.

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