By Diane Coleman & Not Dead Yet
Canadian assisted suicide proponents lost a bid to legalize assisted suicide through Parliament last year. This year, they turned to the courts to challenge Canada’s laws against assisted suicide and euthanasia as unconstitutional. The case is now before the Canadian court in Vancouver and the proceedings began November 14, 2011. Plaintiffs include a woman with ALS.
The public debate is well underway. On November 13, the Calgary Herald published an op ed by three opponents of legalization entitled “Why we should be afraid of assisted suicide.” The authors describe the case as follows:
Carter vs. Attorney General of Canada brings a constitutional challenge to Canada's laws prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia. The case also seeks to legalize these practices as a medical treatment. Last year, a bill in Parliament seeking a similar result was overwhelmingly defeated…. The vote was 228 to 59.
Carter seeks to allow a medical practitioner or a person "acting under the general supervision of a medical practitioner" to assist a patient's suicide. … In the context of traditional medical treatment, "a person acting under the general supervision of a medical practitioner" would include a family member. …
As the authors point out, eligibility would not be limited to people whose condition is terminal:
In Carter, the amended notice of civil claim argues that laws prohibiting physician-assisted suicide are unconstitutional for patients who are "grievously and irremediably ill." The term is not defined. The amended notice of civil claim does, however, give these examples of qualifying diseases/ conditions: "cancer, chronic renal failure and/or cardiac failure, and degenerative neurological diseases such as Huntington's disease and multiple sclerosis." The phrase "grievously and irremediably ill" would also appear to apply to chronic conditions such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS. People who have these diseases and conditions can have years and, sometimes, decades to live.
In response to this op ed, James Swanson, a man with a severely disabled father and friend, sent an angry letter filled with the rhetoric of disability bigotry, which the Herald’s editors entitled “Trapped alive”:
With one deft scratch of the quill, the authors of this article have condemned hundreds of people to a life in hell. They include both my father and a good friend, who both live in Edmonton, and are both intelligent people who have become trapped in bodies that are failing. My father's life, as he knew it, ended several years ago when he was struck down by an automobile while out jogging. What parts of his body that are left, reside in a wheelchair. This once-active man in his 90s now resides in a body that is self-destructing in a painful manner. My dad has no quality of life, only a hope that the next day will not be as painful as the last.
My friend is still practising her profession, despite the advanced ALS that has a hold on her. She has made arrangements for a death with dignity in a far more compassionate country. Her ability and foresight have allowed her to control her own future.
Our non-disabled allies called out for a disability response, and two were carried in the online publication. Mine focused on Swanson’s devaluation of people with severe disabilities and called for equality in suicide prevention:
James G. Swanson's letter demonstrates the profound devaluation that too many feel toward those of us with severe physical disabilities. Swanson describes his father and a friend, disabled by an accident and ALS, respectively, as "trapped" and "condemned to a life in hell." Social messages that one is "better off dead than disabled" permeate society, including our families.
Swanson's solution to the so-called problem of disability is assisted suicide. Like most, he hasn't noticed the difference between suicide and assisted suicide. Apparently, he doesn't think it matters if someone's family views their life as devoid of quality. There's no sign of concern that we might feel that our existence is a burden to those closest to us. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities rightly opposes assisted suicide. A society that not only agrees with a disabled person's suicide, but guarantees that our suicide attempt results in death, is not treating us as equals. We deserve the same suicide prevention as everybody else, not a streamlined path to death.
The second, submitted by Alison Davis, a disabled woman who leads the UK group No Less Human, talked about the life she would have missed if assisted suicide were legal:
I was glad to see your excellent editorial stating the case against euthanasia. If it had been available to me some years ago, I wouldn't now be writing to you. I have several severe disabling conditions. I use a wheelchair full time and a vent at night. I have severe pain, which even morphine can't control.
I wanted to die for more than 10 years, at a time when doctors thought my life expectancy was very short. I attempted suicide seriously several times, and was saved, only because friends found me in time and took me to the emergency room, where I was treated.
At first, I was angry with them for thwarting my wishes. Now, I'm eternally grateful. I want to live now, even though my pain is worse than it was when I wanted to die. What changed my mind is friends who refused to accept my view that my life had no value, and a group of very poor children, who loved me wonderfully and overwhelmingly. I found a reason to live in reaching out to help others, rather than turning the negativity on myself. If assisted suicide had been available then, no one would ever have known the doctors' prognosis was wrong, or that I'd be missing the best years of my life.
The Canadian Department of Justice has filed various affidavits in the case, including one by Rhonda Wiebe, a woman with disabilities who is Vice President of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and Co-Chair of the CCD Ending of Life Ethics Committee and, I’m happy to report, a new member of Not Dead Yet’s Board of Directors. We’ll be following the case closely. – Diane Coleman