The recent BC Supreme Court ruling granting Kelowna resident Gloria Taylor, who suffers from ALS, the right to a doctor-assisted death has breathed new life into a dead issue. The ban on the ban preventing assisted suicide, if it survives the inevitable appeal, is a giant leap forward, and away from an archaic law that stood in the way of our constitutional rights as citizens of a democratic society. Not surprisingly, however, along with the cheers over this ruling (polls show more than two-thirds of Canadians support physician-assisted suicide) came the fears that the disabled, depressed and the elderly will suddenly be lining up at doctors’ offices across the country with their sleeves rolled up for a lethal injection. Or that these same groups would become vulnerable to heartless health care workers or family members who have tired of caring for them and simply want to speed up the final exit. What on earth do these people imagine this ruling means?
This half-baked hysteria was behind the 1993 Supreme Court judgment that denied Sue Rodriguez, another BC woman also suffering from ALS, the right to die at a time, place and manner of her choosing (in a very close 5-4 vote, by the way). A year later, with the help of an anonymous doctor, she did it anyway. But because of a hamstringing law and unfounded fears, she was forced to do it illegally. Back then, no other country or district had legalized doctor-assisted suicide so there was no precedent or evidence to prove or disprove those fears. Since then, three US states (Washington, Oregon and Montana) and four European countries (the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Belgium) have decriminalized the practice, and guess what? The old, the impoverished, the disabled and depressed didn’t start dropping like flies. Why? Because such legislation doesn’t grant a free-for-all on suicide, let alone murder, for crying out loud. There are regulations and safeguards, monitoring and accountability, counseling and other life-improving alternatives available before any end-of-life decision is taken. And those measures will absolutely be put into place with this new judgment. As Madame Justice Lynn Smith said in her ruling: …potential harms created by lifting the ban, such as elder abuse, can be mitigated with “carefully designed, well-monitored safeguards.”
Anyone who doesn’t think doctors don’t already help countless dying, pain-wracked patients on their way is naive. It necessarily goes on in secret, as the ramifications surrounding Dr. Kevorkian have proven. In fact, what is “pulling the plug,” or suspending feeding tubes, both of which are perfectly legal, if not doctor-assisted death? How do we know the patient in those cases isn’t aware and dying a horribly agonizing death by starvation and without the relief of pain medication? Yet it happens every day, legally. Doctors who now do it humanely won’t have to live under fear of persecution — and prosecution — when they answer the desperate pleas of their dying patients.
Gloria Taylor is terminally ill, with the emphasis on terminally. She is going to die, one way or another. This isn’t about murder, or even suicide (which is legal, ironically), for that matter. It’s about knowing your time is up, but having the right to control exactly when, and how, you meet your end. If you can do it painlessly and peacefully, at a time of your choosing, in a place that is comforting to you, with your loved ones around you, why would you not? Why would anyone choose to lie in a cold, clinical institution, in pain and fear, or doped and delirious, waiting. Waiting for the end that’s coming for you sooner or later. Why not sooner?
The sanctimonious amongst us who live for the chance to climb atop their soap box, wag their finger at anyone who doesn’t think, believe or live as they do will have their work cut out for them trying to save the rest of us from going to hell. What they don’t seem to appreciate is that their opposition to dying with dignity keeps the terminally, incurably ill in a state of living hell. How righteous is that?