Physician-assisted death

Quebec leading the way on dying with dignity legislation

Debate heats up as Supreme Court of Canada gives government extension on new legislation
Photo: dszpiro

This past week a historic first quietly took place when a patient in Quebec became the first person to legally die with doctors' assistance in Canada. The news was announced just as the Supreme Court of Canada granted the federal government a four-month extension to form right-to-die legislation.

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Physician-assisted death was illegal in Canada until February 2015, when the law was struck down. The province of Quebec asked for and received an exemption from the federal extension, meaning that people who go ahead with doctor-assisted dying in the province will not face criminal charges.

The Trudeau administration recently created a special Commons-Senate committee to further explore this complex and often contentious issue, as the rest of the country races to meet the federal deadline.

Legislators argue that without amendments to Canada's Criminal Code, the provinces and territories will remain uncertain of what they are and aren't allowed to do. A strong argument has therefore been made for legislative uniformity across the country.

Quebec’s decision to move forward with an assisted dying law to give terminally ill patients the choice to die with medical help has made the province a leader in this debate.

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette has made clear where the province stands on the issue. “We believe here that society has evolved to a point where citizens have the right to choose."

The bill was initially introduced by the Parti Québécois when it was still in power, and it was quickly supported by all political parties and passed by a large margin at the National Assembly in June 2014, in a rare show of non-partisanship that has been highly praised.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated that the federal government intends to draw inspiration from the leadership the province of Quebec has displayed, suggesting that doctor-assisted dying legislation for the rest of Canada won’t be too far behind.

Despite detractors who point to the possibility of governments and individuals using euthanasia (literally a “good death”) as a means of health-care cost containment, the issue is fundamentally one of choice and personal freedom. It is high time that the dignity of life humans hold so dear extend to the dignity of dying.

Few issues intersect religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, and law so directly. Too many people are still uncomfortable with the issue because they confuse medically assisted dying with the murderous Nazi "forced euthanasia" programs that killed thousands of people with mental illness and disability, and their perspective has often been heavily influenced by the Catholic Church’s long-standing opposition to any form of suicide as a mortal sin.

Many speculate that the opposition of some religious group explains why Dying with Dignity Canada, a health and education charity that lobbies for terminally ill patients to have a choice about physician-assisted dying, lost its charitable status last year, during the Harper-government-led audits that initially targeted environmental groups, then expanded to include human rights, poverty, religious and other non-profits.

Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands openly and legally authorize assisted suicides. The state of Oregon has had a physician-assisted suicide law since 1997. Since the Death with Dignity Act was enacted in that state, there’s been no evidence that the elderly or people with disabilities have suffered from abuse or exploitation. There are simply too many safeguards in place.

Here in Quebec, safeguards have also been put in place. The Commission sur les soins de fin de vie, a watchdog of sorts, has been created by the province and is expected to submit a report to the health minister later this year. You can be sure the rest of Canada will be paying close attention when it does.

Canadians are increasingly supportive of the right to die with dignity. In a recent poll, 77 per cent of the population supported the right to physician-assisted death for people who are terminally ill, up 10 per cent from a similar poll the same firm conducted four years ago. The survey of 1,440 voters found support was strong across all age groups and political affiliations.

The ability to direct and navigate our own lives, to make our own decisions, mistakes, and choices, is what ultimately determines and defines what it means to be human.

Those of us who have seen the indignity of illness — how it can slowly reduce someone you love to someone who no longer resembles the person they once were, how dependent they become on caregivers and hurried hospital and palliative care workers, and how devoid of dignity a life in pain or without hope can be — welcome this news.

The ability to direct and navigate our own lives, to make our own decisions, mistakes, and choices, is what ultimately determines and defines what it means to be human. To have that taken away is cruel. To suffer needless physical pain and emotional suffering when there is no longer any hope of recovery or of better days is utterly pointless.

This notion that euthanasia is a choice made by people who are depressed, have been made to believe they have no other options or because the medical and support system has let them down is simply untrue.

Ending your life on your own terms and as pain-free as possible is actually one of the kindest, most humane choices one can have access to.

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