Justice Minister David Lametti.
Justice Minister David Lametti. Credit: Province of British Columbia / Flickr Credit: Province of British Columbia / Flickr

Canada’s medical assistance in dying (MAID) law — had been set to include mental health issues starting next March and even consider extension to “mature minors.” The government now says it is seeking a delay in making those changes. The bill has gone from a progressive example of social compassion to a potential model for neoliberal cost-cutting, by killing people instead of housing or caring for them.

That’s breathtaking, metaphorically at least. “MAID is the new society safety net,” said a despairing 65-year-old Canadian quoted in an article in Common Sense (now called The Free Press).

MAID was historically a liberal or left cause. Its igniting moment came in 1994, when the brave NDP MP Svend Robinson helped his friend Sue Rodriguez, who was in life-ending agony with an incurable disease, to die. Robinson was investigated but not charged. He received his income from public funds but wasn’t acting in his parliamentary role.

It’s characteristic of what’s happened since then that the useful, critical piece in The Free Press — a basically right-wing U.S. journal — was by a conservative Canadian National Post columnist, Rupa Subramanya — though I’m not suggesting right and left is what this discussion is about: it totally isn’t.

Justice Minister David Lametti recently muddied the waters by seeming to suggest MAID is a matter of providing equal access to suicide, for those without the means to do it on their own. Some MAID advocates expressed shock at his equation but MAID is assisted suicide, and in the past was often called that — though only within stringent limits and in conventional medical cases.

Suicide itself is a vaster category. It’s a permanent element in human existence. Hamlet said the question was to be or not to be, but suicide brought him up short. (“Ay, there’s the rub.”) Until recently, media wouldn’t even speak the word. They’d say someone “died suddenly,” or “at their own hand.” The movement for MAID had to overcome that opprobrium, and it succeeded. But its backers may’ve forgotten they did so by limiting it solely to terminal cases.

Let me rattle on a bit. Those who want to die ultimately have, I think, a right to it, even including cases that qualify as mental ill health. There can be a certain dignity in that choice, sometimes the only dignity which distraught people feel is left, and they may merit some complicated respect for it.

But any role of the state should be highly restricted. MAID was about foreseeable death; its extension, if it eventually passes, will be about intolerable life. A medical category gets replaced by an existential one. Of course people in despair deserve compassion and care — but a bureaucratic, state-run, professionally administered lethal process doesn’t qualify as that.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called despair the sickness unto death, but he spoke metaphorically; calling a MAID doctor to deal with it is a category error. There’s also the fact that medical personnel have (albeit rarely) engaged in serial murder. But it doesn’t take a lot of them to do a lot of damage.

As well, we know that MAID is a source of income, and of a sense of power too, to which doctors aren’t immune. As for MAID being — as one shrink said — about respecting human dignity: why should medical doctors know more about that than, say, a single working mom? Let them treat what they trained for. Death and dignity are matters for humanity at large, in its fragmented multitudes.

I don’t normally “weigh in” on topics for their own sake, but this feels different. Perhaps because I remember adolescence; it lingers so resolutely. (Life is like high school with money, as Frank Zappa is said to have said.) I’d have grabbed at almost any explanation or solution for the multiple hells it seemed to generate.

It’s also to do with the slippery slope argument, which usually creeps me out but it comes down to that here. It’s a perilous process we’ve begun scuttering through. The mere fact that these debates spring up like weeds shows how murky the terrain is and why discussion should be allowed to flourish, versus getting cut off by precipitate legislative deadlines.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.