A matter of life and death: Legislating the right to die with dignity

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Like this column? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Everyone from a young age onwards understands that they will die one day. If one is young, that day is in the distant future, but if you are older, there is usually a daily reminder that it is not that far away. Thanks to modern medicine, the final day has been postponed for many. Indeed, life expectancy for both sexes has risen every decade.

In the 1920s, men at birth had a life expectancy of 59 years and women of 61 years. By 2007, it was 79 for men and 83 for women. If you were a 65-year-old man in 2007, you could expect on average to live another 18.5 years (or to over 83 years ), and if female, another 21.6 years (or to over 86 years). These positive results also pose challenges, especially to health care.

The Canadian Medical Association has called for a senior's strategy for health care. Seniors' organizations have supported this need to make better provisions for seniors to live in their home rather than being warehoused in large facilities where they are liable to be drugged in order to ensure a compliant resident. Good home care and palliative care are in short supply.

The April 30 edition of The Economist reported on the trend showing an increase in suicides across all ages in most OECD countries. From 1999 to 2014, the suicide rate in the U.S. had risen by 24 per cent. Both genders and all age groups saw an increase. Some of this startling rise since 2007 is due to the economic crisis. Ill health is correlated with inequality. Thus, it is poor people not rich ones that have seen their life expectancy decline in the U.S. But age is a factor. The article concludes that "the group at the highest risk of committing suicide is not reckless young men but males aged 75 or older."

It is in the context of these demographic changes that the Supreme Court of Canada revised its view on doctor-assisted dying. In the 1993 Sue Rodriquez case, they ruled in a 5 - 4 decision against giving her the right to die with the assistance of a physician. In the 2015 case brought on behalf of Lee Carter and Gloria Taylor, in an unanimous decision, the Supreme Court did not strike down the Criminal Code's prohibitions on assisted suicide, but said they no longer apply:

"[t]o the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition."

The Court gave the government a year to change the law. The Conservative government ducked the issue. The new Liberal government has come up with a law that does not respect the Supreme Court's decision and will likely end up back in court if it is not amended.

The daughter of Kay Carter was "deeply disappointed" with the legislation as her mother would not have been able to access physician-assisted death in Canada. Kay Carter had to go to Switzerland to get such assistance.

There are some very difficult decisions to make around allowing such a procedure. But as Sue Rodriquez said in her case, "Whose life is this?"

Jean Chretien once quipped that "everyone wanted to die and go to heaven but just not yet." But for some people, "yet" has arrived as they know the road ahead. There should be better access to palliative care for people in their final days, but some will want to end the inevitable progress of a disease or condition. We should respect life and the decision of people who decide that their time in life on earth has come to an end.

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.

Like this column? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.