The Right to Die Debate
Dying on our own terms
Written By: Matt Gurney National Post – Jan 17, 2013
Tuesday’s tabling of a report in Quebec’s National Assembly calling for legalized assisted suicide in rare circumstances has been a long time coming. With any luck, the impact of the report will be momentous enough to warrant the wait. Canadians deserve the right to seek an end to suffering where there is no hope of recovery, and should be thankful for Quebec leading the charge.
That Quebec should be in the lead is no surprise. Polls have consistently shown that a strong majority of Canadians support euthanasia or assisted suicide in principle, and that’s especially true in Quebec — support there has always been above the national average.
That led to the creation of the Dying with Dignity Committee in 2009. It was tasked with public consultations to determine what action, if any, Quebec should take toward legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. Almost a year ago, it called upon Quebec to explore making euthanasia an option for citizens under strict conditions: A would-be recipient of euthanasia would need to be an adult, be suffering from an incurable condition, be in tremendous mental or physical pain, request the procedure directly and have two physicians sign off.
(The committee has used the terms “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” somewhat interchangeably, though the former refers to a doctor arranging a suicide, which the patient themselves commits, while the latter refers to a doctor doing the deed, typically because the patient’s condition has left them unable to do so.)
In the 2012 report, the committee noted that major improvements in the province’s system of palliative care would go a long way to reducing the need for euthanasia in most cases. Where that was not sufficient, it recommended, as a stop-gap measure, that Crown attorneys no longer prosecute suspected cases.
That’s not an untenable position — British Columbia has already directed its prosecutors to avoid trials for alleged assisted suicides whenever possible. But it’s an unsatisfying way to address the problem. Physicians can hardly be expected to provide a service if “we probably won’t prosecute” is the best cover they can expect. Euthanasia and assisted suicide should be made legal, and then performed within the established confines of the legislation.
And that’s what the latest report in Quebec seeks to do. Last year’s report spelled out the specifics of when euthanasia should be available. The report tabled Tuesday deals with the how. The report suggests that Quebec create a provincial law that would permit assisted suicide, which a doctor must decide is warranted. Quebec’s Crown attorneys would be simultaneously ordered to not bring to trial anyone accused of violating the federal Criminal Code’s provisions against euthanasia or assisted suicide.
It might work, if only because the federal Tories have little desire to give their partisan opponents in Quebec any more opportunities to paint the Conservatives as social-conservative troglodytes out of touch with Quebec values. But even if successful, the tactic would be tremendously controversial. Critics would rightly note that Quebec’s actions would make comparable steps in other provinces far more likely.
Good. Canadians facing a long, lingering death shouldn’t be made to look enviously upon their counterparts in Quebec. There are many reasons to fight for every last day of life, but there are an equal number of reasons to entrust the individual citizen with the right to decide for themselves when their remaining days are not worth living.
Objections rooted in religion and ethicists’ fears of a slippery slope aren’t sufficient grounds on which to order a citizen to die slowly. Nor are final days and weeks smothered in a morphine haze some magical solution — a citizen who’d rather live their last day clear-headed should not be forced to do so in agony.
That’s why the frequent counter-argument against euthanasia — praise for our system of palliative care — is irrelevant. The quality of our palliative wards and hospices is great news for those willing to meet their end within them. For the rest of us, it’s cold comfort indeed that the place we don’t want to die in is well-run and competently staffed. It may well be. But we don’t want to die there.
Quebec says it could have legislation along the lines discussed above ready in months. Let’s hope so, and hope further that the rest of Canada doesn’t lag far behind.