Concerns around physician-assisted death

Canadians now have the right to choose death over suffering. Well, sort of.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a ruling that will now allow for physician-assisted death in Canada. While this might seem like a step in the right direction for those in favour of euthanasia, there is still some concern around the ruling.
In the past when the issue of euthanasia came up, I always took the stand where I think people should have the right to choose death over suffering.
Now that the prohibition of assisted-death has been deemed unconstitutional, and now that Canadians are one step closer to being able to opt for death, I am no longer sure where I stand.
Let me explain why.
The idea of assisted suicide has long been debated in this country, with Canadians begging the question, is it sometimes ok for people to die by their own hand or by the hand of a doctor?
The ruling states that only physicians are allowed to carry out life-ending measures in the cases of competent adults who “clearly consent to the termination of life” and who “has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”
Seems straight forward enough…right? Not so much.
As it stands right now, a lot can be left up to interpretation. Who is considered a “competent adult”? Is that based on age or on mental capacity or a mix of the two? What do they mean by grievous, or severe? What one person considers severe might not be the same as another person’s definition. What kind of suffering is considered “intolerable”? Again, this could differ from one person to another.
Does this ruling take into consideration patients who suffer from mental illness, who are in a constant state of despair and anguish? While this might not necessarily come out as physical pain, they are in intolerable pain nonetheless.
The Supreme Court has postponed the effect of the decision for one year, which is to say Parliament has one year to craft legislation to go in place of the old legislation that banned physician-assisted death.
I fear this new legislation might be rushed, seeing as though Parliament goes on summer hiatus from late-June to late-September and once they are back, they will be preparing for the fixed election date of Oct. 19.
This issue, one would suspect, would want to be dealt with before a (potential) change in leadership as it is not likely an issue politicians will want to discuss while campaigning.
Last fall, my uncle was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that spread throughout his body and there was nothing that could be done to help him.
He spent the last few weeks of his life in the hospital, waiting to die. He couldn’t eat so had feeding tubes. He lost a lot of weight as his health deteriorated significantly. It started to look like he would eventually end up starving to death.
I remember being really angry that he and his family had to go through this, waiting for the inevitable to occur, while he suffered in a cruel manner, clinging to what can only be described as a poor quality of life.
Luckily, if that word can be used in such a terrible situation, his wait ended before too long. But not everyone passes so quickly and are thus forced to suffer and endure a terrible quality of life for long periods of time.
If death is inevitable, why should a patient be forced to suffer? Should that person not be allowed to be relieved of their misery and suffering?
I still tend to lean on the side of yes, we should be allowed to choose death over suffering.
On the other hand, questions come up: What if a person has given their consent to a doctor that they want to die, but at a later date changes their mind but at that point they don’t have the capacity to express this?
And then what if a physician abuses the whole concept of assisted suicide, taking liberties into his or her own hands and ending the life of their patient, falsely claiming it was what the patient wanted?
To take it to the extreme, what if physician assisted-death becomes a common practice as a way for government to save on health care costs? Because it’s much more expensive to keep a patient on machines under constant care than it is to simply remove them from the equation.
Failure to draft clear legislation could result in similar issues that have come out surrounding the abortion debate.
In 1988, the Supreme Court struck down the Criminal Code laws allowing abortion and to this day, no standards have been set and each province has a different approach to the issue, where some provinces allow abortions and other do not.
Whatever the final legislation says, it has to be incredibly thorough and clear and there needs to be transparency from the doctors and the government for each case where assisted-death is carried through.

[Originally published in the Miramichi Leader on Feb. 15, 2015]

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