B.C. Death With Dignity Case Gains Momentum As It Heads For Supreme Court
VANCOUVER - A woman who watched her husband die a gruesome death, only to discover she too had lung cancer is one of several patients and physicians asking the court to strike down Canada's assisted-suicide laws.
Susan Bracken of Barrie, Ont., filed an affidavit with the B.C. Supreme Court, saying she strongly believes that a person should have the right to choose to die.
"I have seen how horrible disease and the dying process can be, and that is why I am seeking deliverance from that type of suffering for myself and why I'm pushing for change," she said in the sworn statement.
Bracken's emotional odyssey is among a large stack of affidavits prepared for a summary trial next month in B.C. Supreme Court.
Justice Lynn Smith agreed to hear a speedy trial for Gloria Taylor, one of the plaintiffs who is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
A consistent theme in the affidavits from both patients and doctors is quality of life and dying with dignity.
Marlene Reisler of Richmond, B.C., said she and her husband Isadore had several conversations about assisted suicide after he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
"We felt very strongly that the laws in this country allow far more compassion to dogs, cats and horses who are in distress than toward human beings."
Retired Quebec physician Marcel Boisvert said he has seen situations where physician-assisted dying was justified.
He singled out one case where a man in his 40s had locked-in syndrome and could do nothing but wink and make sounds. All consulting physicians agreed there was no hope for improvement.
He became agitated one day while watching a wounded horse on TV about to be euthanized and his wife asked him if that's what he wanted. He indicated it was, Boisvert said.
After new consultations, the man was sedated and "allowed to die from inanition" — exhaustion due to lack of food and water.
"It proved most stressful for his wife and all the health-care team, including myself," Boisvert said.
The Attorney General of Canada has not filed affidavits in its arguments, but said in a statement of defence the laws banning assisted suicide are necessary to protect vulnerable people from feeling pressure to end their lives.
"Legal assisted suicide suggests government condone or encourages those suffering from illness or disability to choose death," the court documents said.
In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada of Canada rejected Sue Rodriguez in her attempt to die legally.
Joe Arvay, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the court during pre-trail arguments that much has changed since the Rodriguez case and the court needs to reconsider the argument.
Prof. Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, said 20 years ago, few jurisdictions allowed assisted suicide. Now it's allowed in many countries and three U.S. states.
He said all the bogeymen about how terrible allowing assisted suicide would be for the disabled, the vulnerable and the sick have been dispatched.
"All of those turned out to be false," he said.
"The Supreme Court speculated about various harms and now we've got good evidence those harms were purely speculative and they turned out to be fictional," Schafer said.
"We have not ended up with a nightmare society in those places that have legalized it."
Bracken said in her affidavit that she watched while the man she loved "died by inches," and while she was fighting her cancer she knew she didn't want to go the same way.
She knew she wanted to choose if, when and how.
"I wondered if I would have the nerve to slash my wrists. How deep would I have to cut?"
Her doctor, self-help groups and even a lawyer she called dissuaded her from suicide and from challenging the law on assistance in dying, Bracken said.
"I got so angry." she said. "I felt betrayed by my country."
She's now been cancer free for nine years, but has since become an advisor for the Right to Die Society and is a volunteer for Dying with Dignity Canada.