Recognize the right to die

NationalPost.com – opinion
Aug. 5, 2011.    Matt Gurney, National Post

Two separate court cases have brought the assisted-suicide debate back into the news.

First, the federal government is seeking to have a lawsuit by the (somewhat creepily named) Farewell Foundation dismissed. Ottawa argues that the group’s lawsuit – which argues that the laws against assisted suicide constitute a violation of their right to die with dignity – is hypothetical and has no standing.

Second, British Columbia resident Gloria Taylor has successfully moved to have her case demanding the right to assisted suicide be expedited after a judge concluded that her deteriorating physical condition might render a later trial date moot.

In both cases, the petitioners have a just cause. Canada’s laws against assisted suicide are well-intended, but do indeed infringe on the right of citizens to have a say in their medical treatments, even when their desires are to end their lives.

Of the two, Taylor’s case is more likely to enjoy success. Certainly, her arguments are hard to refute.

Taylor, a 63-year-old grandmother, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS victims slowly lose the ability to control their bodies. According to an affidavit filed in relation to her case, Taylor has already lost the use of her right hand, is losing control of the muscles in her feet and toes, and is experiencing difficulty breathing (the muscles that contract and expand the rib cage, making respiration possible, are affected by ALS). Taylor can soon expect to be totally immobilized and unable to chew food, swallow or breathe on her own.

In most cases, ALS does not affect the mind. The victim is fully aware of his or her deteriorating physical condition, trapped inside ruined bodies. Life support can prolong their lives, but usually within five years, the respiratory complications prove fatal. (Taylor herself already has outlived the prognosis originally provided by her doctors.)

Taylor’s suit argues that the government’s laws against assisted suicide – anyone who so assists can face up to 14 years in prison – is a violation of the rights enumerated in sections seven and 15 of the Charter (which guarantee security of the person and equality before the law, respectively). A patient in her situation – or a comparable one – may be unable to simply take her own life. Receiving help from an able-bodied person is the only option. And Taylor rightly argues that an able-bodied person who assists in this capacity should not go to jail.

It was another British Col-umbia woman struck down by ALS, Sue Rodriguez, who made a similar appeal for the right to assisted suicide in 1993. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which rejected Rodriguez’s appeal in a 5 to 4 decision, finding that the same sections of the Charter that Taylor is appealing to – as well as the 12th section, against cruel and unusual punishment – did not grant the right to assisted suicide.

Rodriguez’s desire for death was eventually accommodated by an anonymous physician. Taylor could probably also find such help in this manner, but she shouldn’t have to.

Admittedly, there are many whose religious or philosophical beliefs would lead them to believe that such suffering should be endured until God’s will or nature’s progress bring the final end. They’re welcome to those beliefs, and should be accommodated: Canadian health-care laws should never be changed to make euthanasia or assisted suicide the default option under any circumstances. The automatic presumption should remain in favour of medical treatment and prolonging life.

But the law goes too far in declaring that the only way to protect the rights of the terminally ill to the longest possible life is by limiting the rights of others to make a different choice. It is easy to argue back against euthanasia or assisted suicide in the abstract by raising objections rooted in religion, fears of a slippery slope toward devaluing life or worries about accidental applications of euthanasia. But none of these arguments speak to what is the key point: Gloria Taylor is suffering, and wants the right to die on her own terms while she still has some dignity. How can a humane society compel her to suffer on in agony against her expressed wishes?

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