The right to die with dignity

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The debate over the right of a mentally competent adult with a terminal illness to have the choice and right to die with dignity is a growing societal issue in Canada.

Suicide was decriminalized in Canada in 1974 but counselling or assisting suicide continues to be an offence under Section 24 of the Canadian Criminal Code.

There is mounting evidence that shows the majority of Canadians support physician-assisted suicide. Recent opinion polls are one indication of that. The Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) unanimously passed a resolution at its 2011 convention supporting death with dignity.

The morally charged debate over assisted suicide was first thrust into the forefront 19 years ago when Sue Rodriguez sought help to end her suffering from the degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is an incurable illness that gradually destroys bodily functions and causes an agonizing slow death. Rodriguez, who lived in Victoria, B.C., fought to have a legal right to assisted suicide with the help of a physician. She twice took her case to the Supreme Court of Canada but lost both battles. On September 30, 1993, the Court, in what would become a landmark decision, held 5-4 against her. According to an article in The Globe and Mail, one of the reasons given was that the Court did not want to preempt a national debate it felt belonged first in Parliament.   

In November 2005, a British Columbia court found 73-year-old Evelyn Martens not guilty of helping two seriously ill women kill themselves.

In January 2006, a Montreal court sentenced Marielle Houle to three years probation for assisting her ailing son who was struggling with multiple sclerosis to commit suicide.

In September 2010, Laurent Rouleau, who suffered with multiple sclerosis and was in rapid decline, died from two bullet wounds to his gut.

In 2009, Lee Carter and her husband escorted Lee’s mother Kathleen to Switzerland to die with the help of a doctor. Kathleen Carter was suffering from degenerative spinal stenosis.

In 2011, Gloria Taylor, a British Columbia women who suffered from ALS, and others, including Lee Carter, Hollis Johnson, Dr. William Schichet and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, filed a death with dignity lawsuit before the B.C. Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in June that the Criminal Court provisions that prohibit doctors from helping their patients commit suicide are unconstitutional. The Court went on to say that the Criminal Code provisions discriminate against people who are too ill to take their own lives. The Court gave Parliament a year "to take whatever steps it sees fit to draft and consider legislation." 

Gloria Taylor died in October.  

The federal government has filed an appeal to the B.C. Court of Appeal. The case is scheduled to be heard in March of next year. 

An editorial in The Globe and Mail on September 12, 2011, entitled "Autonomy in death, with safeguards," stated:

"The government should address the issue head-on, instead of leaving it to expensive, time-consuming and ultimately inconclusive legal battles. Legislators should accept assisted suicide as an option of last resort, and frame its legalization narrowly, so that safeguards are in place to prevent abuse, and to ensure that euthanasia is restricted to all but the most extreme cases."

This past spring the Quebec Dying with Dignity Commission, an all-party group drawn from the National Assembly, issued a comprehensive report that recommended that some dying patients should have the right, under strict conditions, to request medical help to die. The report also recommended that doctors who help a terminally ill patient die by suicide not be charged criminally.

Canadians can look to other countries for some guidance on how to deal with the issues around death with dignity. Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands have death with dignity legislation. So does the U.S. state of Oregon.

The Dutch law offers a six-part test, which must be met for a physician-assisted suicide to be legal. The patient's request must be voluntary, must demonstrate a lasting desire to die, and their suffering must be unbearable. The attending physician must assist the patient to weigh the alternatives, must consult with another doctor and ensure that there is no chance of recovery. And a report must be filed with the coroner. 

In Oregon, two physicians have to confirm that the patient is terminally ill and that judgment is unimpaired. Moreover, the patient must be aware of all of options, including pain management and palliative care. A patient must also persist in the request for at least 15 days and the voluntary nature of the patient's request must be confirmed by two individuals who are neither family nor primary caregivers. 

The Congress of Union Retirees of Canada adopted the following resolution at its 10th Constitutional Convention in October 2011:

Resolution No. 28 - Death With Dignity

CURC supports legislation to permit physician-assisted suicide for consenting adults who are terminally ill.

Because terminally ill individuals should have the right to choose how much suffering they wish to endure;

Because the major benefactors of prolonging life for the terminally ill are pharmaceutical companies; and

Because every individual deserves the dignity of choice.

The Congress of Union Retirees of Canada believes the Canadian Criminal Code should be amended to define a legal doctor-assisted death, with rigorous safeguards to prevent abuse, and that euthanasia should be restricted to all but the most extreme cases.

In Gloria Taylor's affidavit filed with the B.C. Supreme Court, she said: "As Sue Rodriguez asked before me, whose life is it anyway?"

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

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