By Brian Purdy - Calgary Herald - November 28, 2011
Suicide is legal, assisting it is not. The debate about the legalization of assisting suicide is in the news again, with another court case approaching the Supreme Court of Canada.
There are two points of view. The first is that every person has a right to end one's own life, so why should it not be legal to assist someone to do so? A person at the end of life can get help to end suffering and an unbearable dwindling away to an inevitable end. Why should a doctor or anyone else be made a criminal for an act of mercy?
The second view is that legalizing assisting a suicide is a dangerous slippery slope. Lord Acton, who famously said "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," also said something else about power. He said, "do not grant powers on the assumption they will not be abused." Those who take the second view think that legalizing assisting suicide would lead to the likes of "Dr. Death" Jack Kevorkian not only assisting but encouraging people to commit suicide, often in highly inappropriate cases. It might lead to "suicide parlours" where depressed but otherwise healthy people could have a final lethal cocktail. Doctors might rid themselves of long term comatose patients without proper consent. Licia Corbella has pointed out in these pages that a very large number of patients in the Netherlands have been terminated by their doctors without any consent by the patient.
When my mother died years ago, she was old, and in a hospital bed for the last 18 months. Before that, for years, she hadn't been able to care for herself. No one could say she was productive in her last years. There was constant, expensive care.
After she died, I thought again about intervention to end the life of people like Mother, who dwindle into a prolonged dying. She had, after all, been declining for years. Should she have been put out of her misery?
Well, she wasn't miserable, as far as anyone knows. She had strokes and couldn't talk for the last two years, but didn't seem to be in pain.
Besides, who would make that decision to end Mother's life? Me?
Another family member? Hell no. We stood to profit by inheriting her estate. And, we could eliminate our burden of care. Either way, definite conflict of interest, no matter how good the intentions.
The government? Double no. The government subsidized her extended care, and would be glad to be rid of the expense.
Mother was a burden to government, even if she had, together with Dad, paid taxes longer than most people have lived. It is just too dangerous to trust any cash-strapped government with the power to rid itself of unproductive citizens.
A medical committee? Triple no. Mother was even more directly a problem to the doctors who had all those boring check-ins on her. It's too easy sign a report saying "let's get rid of this one".
Who, then? Anyone? Well, yes. Mother could decide to end her life. If she decided herself, she had the right to bring her life to an end. But only Mother could make that decision, and it's the law that she had to do it herself without assistance. Long ago she knew she could leave a written instruction, in case she became incapacitated. She didn't, and so spent years becoming progressively more helpless. So it goes. It doesn't follow that she wanted to die, just because she didn't have much of a life.
Maybe she did, and couldn't say so. A tough break for her, but that doesn't give the government, the doctors or me, the power of death over her. Mother never signed a form, or said how she wanted to die. She left it to fate - and that was her right.
Life isn't easy, and neither is dying. Should we allow our doctors to become legal killers to make dying easier? Who's going to be there to make sure that the patient fully understood the situation and gave informed consent to the doctor who provided the lethal pill or injection? It's not a simple question. So far our courts and our legislators have said no, and maybe that's the way it should be, tough as it is on some people at the end of their lives.
Brian Purdy is a Calgary freelance writer and former Crown prosecutor