No easy answers on doctor-assisted death

What’s your opinion about doctor-assisted death if a loved one is gravely ill with unbearable pain and bedridden?  Would you have that loved one’s life ended with the help of a doctor?

These are among questions being discussed across Canada following a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada on doctor-assisted death.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the ban on doctor-aided deaths but put the ruling on hold for a year. The federal government in February won a four-month extension but the court ruled the terminally ill could apply for an exemption to the Criminal Code ban in the interim.

The court ruled that Canadian adults in grievous, unending pain have a right to end their life with a doctor’s help.

Some are asking why a young person below the age of consent suffering from grievous and unending pain would not have the right to have a doctor assisted death. Others say children are not capable of making that decision while still others suggest the decision to end a child’s life could be made by the parents if they strongly believe their child is suffering needlessly.

A committee of 11 members of Parliament and five senators set up to deal with the doctor-assisted dying ruling by the Supreme Court has its work cut out for it in this ethical and moral challenge.

In its ruling, the court explained in a powerful opening paragraph why it was creating a new constitutional right to autonomy over one’s death in some circumstances: Those who are severely and irremediably suffering, whether physically or psychologically, “may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering” by the government’s absolute ban on assisted dying.

“A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”

Some critics had argued that competent adults cannot consent to their death but the nine judges dismissed that notion. “We do not agree that the existential formulation of the right to life requires an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, or that individuals cannot ‘waive’ their right to life. This would create a ‘duty to live’.”

The court decision puts Canada in the company of a small group of countries such as Belgium, and U.S. states Washington and Oregon that permit doctor-assisted death.

But are these countries good role models for Canada to follow? The government appointed Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, director of Manitoba Palliative Care Research Unit, to chair the panel that will consult with Canadians on how to respond to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision.

He and others went on an 11-day fact-finding tour in Europe that apparently opened their eyes to the many complexities surrounding the practice including where patients can legally have their deaths hastened.

Is this what Canadians want? The answer is far from direct as some still believe that if it’s God’s will for someone to die, then so be it.

For many religious or “God fearing” people, doctor-assisted death may not be their first choice for a loved one suffering and in grave pain. But what if it’s the only thing to do in an effort to ease that pain and suffering?

From a personal perspective, I know of families who decided the best thing for their loved one to ease their pain and suffering was to ask the doctors for help, not only through medication but to ease off the life support.

Quite recently a family in the U.S. could not bear to see the anguish and despair in their father’s face as he suffered from cancer and weaned him from life support so he could die peacefully.

As much as they would have preferred to have their dad and husband around for a longer time, the doctors had no means of causing a recovery and so the family decided to “let him go to the maker.”

Archbishop of Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins wants the federal government to protect the vulnerable and those who care for them.

“Dying is simply not the same as being killed,” Collins said in a YouTube video, posted by the archdiocese. “We are grateful for physicians and nurses and others who offer medical assistance to patients who are dying. But it is never justified for them to kill.”

But, like Bob Marley and the Wailers song says, “who feels it knows it,” and perhaps those who feel the pain are the only ones who should have that right, whether the rest of us think it’s good or bad.

Meanwhile, the debate rages on.

By Jasminee Sahoye