Column: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Peaceful End

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This past week the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban on providing a doctor-assisted death. The groundbreaking decision from the country's top court sweeps away the existing law and gives Parliament a year to draft new legislation that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable irremediable suffering — physical or mental — to seek medical help ending their lives.

The judgment, which is unsigned to reflect the unanimous institutional weight of the court, says the current ban infringes on life, liberty and security of person provisions in Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

Once again Canada proves to be light years ahead of the U.S. where a Gallup opinion poll released a couple of years ago found that the most divisive social issue was doctor- assisted suicide. Forty-five percent said they found it morally acceptable and 48 percent said the opposite, and this, in a survey that included questions on gay marriage and cloning. 

Assisted suicide is the common term for actions by which an individual helps another person voluntarily bring about their own death. "Assistance" may mean providing one with the means (drugs or equipment) to end their own lives, but may extend to other actions. The current waves of global public debate have been ongoing for decades, centering on legal, bioethical, religious, and moral conceptions of "suicide" and a personal right to death. Legally speaking, the practice may be legal, illegal, or undecided depending on the culture or jurisdiction. 

The American godfather of assisted suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, died June 3, 2011. Many described him as a crank and a publicity hog, and he was often referred to as "Dr. Death." But he was also a hero to a large number of the American people and in particular to those suffering slow and undignified deaths. Kevorkian's cause was the right of people with extremely painful illnesses to end their suffering in the only way possible.

 It took the courts five attempts to convict him. He did not care he had to spend eight years in jail, he believed it was his mission to push the issue to the forefront of public opinion and open a debate that, in time, will lead to the legalization of assisted suicide. It is frustrating watching the U.S.'s confounding of law with Christianity. We are more inclined to end lives by the indiscriminate proliferation of guns. We put Kevorkian in prison but let the NRA run wild. 

Here at home it is legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana with some provisions. On Feb. 6, 1997 Charles Hall, a Florida man with AIDS, became the only American with the legal right to physician-assisted suicide when a Florida judge lifted the stay on a previous court ruling affirming his right to obtain such assistance from his doctor. 

Despite its strict Roman Catholic history, in May 1997, Colombian courts allowed for the euthanasia of sick patients who requested to end their lives. In 2006, Belgium legalized euthanasia with certain regulations. In France a new legislation was passed which states that when medicine serves "no other purpose than the artificial support of life" they can be "suspended or not undertaken.” Euthanasia and assisted suicide were legalized in Luxemburg in April 2009, while in the Netherlands physician-assisted suicide is legal under the same conditions as euthanasia since 2001. Switzerland has legislatively permitted assisted suicide since 1942.

In some religious contexts, while a "suicide" is considered to be an offense made out of unknowing, confusion, or despair, assisted suicides are ostensibly actions made in faith, with no expectation of incurred sin or such that would bar transcendence to an afterlife. In several denominations, particularly the Catholic Church, suicides are considered a serious sin, and thus many Catholics oppose the practice of assisted suicide. Hinduism, on the other hand, accepts the right to die for those who are tormented by terminal diseases or those who have no desire, ambition or no responsibilities remaining, it allows death through the non-violent practice of fasting to the point of starvation. 

The point is that we ourselves have an obligation to relieve the suffering of our fellow men and to respect their dignity. There are thousands of people afflicted with excruciatingly painful and terminal conditions and diseases, that have left them permanently incapable of functioning in any dignified human fashion, lying in hospitals beds every day. They can only look forward to lives filled with more suffering, humiliation, and deterioration. When such people beg for a merciful end to their pain and indignity, it is cruel and inhumane to refuse their pleas. Compassion demands that we comply and cooperate.

 We certainly have that compassion toward our beloved pets when their time comes. Why not the same respect and consideration, and love, for our friends and family members? The dangers of legalizing assisted suicide cannot be dismissed, especially the threat of possible undue pressure on old and sick people or the emergence of a social norm that would make it a routine or prescribed method of dying. But at the same time, in a free country, it should be an option. 

Furthermore, nobody's life should be dictated by a Church, a Government, or by a majority vote of the Supreme Court. The issue requires no consensus. People should decide for themselves. It will still take us some time but less now that Canada has taken the step. For the time being I am going to check if I can border cross when “it's time.” 


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