“When Phil decides that his time has come, the only legal way he can hasten his death is by refusing all food and water. And I think that’s cruel,” said a middle-aged woman sitting in the front row of the Stratford Festival’s Forum on Writing about the Right to Die.
The audience broke into applause.
Phil, her husband, was sitting bent over in his chair next to her. He has had Parkinson’s disease for 16 years, and he was clear that the time was approaching when his quality of life would be unacceptable.
“But, the decision about when I’m going to do it is hard,” he said. “My medical support team is on-side.”
There was more applause.
The Stratford Festival has added 150 Forum events to its season to supplement its regular playbill – all of them spinning off issues raised in the plays and directed at a theatre-going public that wants more.
“They want to unplug from their day to day and get a chance to feel and think,” Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino said. “They are not content to simply do that in the theatre – they want to immerse themselves in the world of the plays all of the time.”
In this latest forum, 500 people paid $10 a ticket to hear playwrights Judith Thompson and Itai Erdal, and American writer Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, on the issue of the right to die.
“This is Stratford with a greater sense of engagement in the world that we have today,” Cimolino said.
The Stratford Festival Forum seemed more at home discussing assisted suicide than the Canadian Medical Association at itsannual meeting in Calgary last week. The CMA backed away from any decisions and referred the question for further study.
In contrast, the forum participants in Stratford, Ont., included people with severe disabilities and women in their 60s helping their mothers up the stairs – members of the public with a vested interest in the subject who could not afford to wait for further study.
The panel moderated by writer Alex Bulmer, a woman who lost her sight in her 20s, did not dwell long on “writing” about the right to die. The audience clearly wanted to get to the nub of the issue and discuss the realities faced by Erdal and Carter, who both had mothers who chose the time of their own deaths.
Erdal’s play How to Disappear Completely chronicles the death of his mother. She lived in Israel, where assisted suicide is illegal, and was diagnosed with lung cancer 12 years ago. He flew from Vancouver back to Jerusalem and looked after her for the last nine months of her life.
“She made it clear to everyone”, he said “that she does not want to suffer pain. When your mother is suffering you do whatever she asks. She asked me — will you help me. I will try but I don’t know.”
The hospice team came every week, and every week Erdal would ask for more morphine.
“They looked the other way,” he said. “It is illegal, but it happens every day in every place in the world.
“It was never a question of what was the right thing to do. It was a question of will I have the guts to do the right thing. It was the hardest thing I ever did.”
It is never made clear whether Erdal or his mother ultimately administered the extra morphine.
Judith Thompson sounded a more cautionary note.
In her play The Thrill, she takes off from the story of American disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson. In 2003, Johnson debated ethicist Peter Singer on his proposition that parents should be given the right to euthanize their severely disabled children.
She also spoke out on the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose doctors said was in a persistent vegetative state. Schiavo was kept on life support for 15 years while her parents and her husband fought it out in the courts. Ultimately her feeding tube was withdrawn and she died.
“How do we know what people really want?” Thompson says. “Looking at that picture of her I thought, no, she’s really there and she suffered a lot. Then I began thinking about our terror of dependency.”
On the question of choice, she asked: “What is choice? People are coerced.” And she added, “We change our minds – nothing should be iron-clad.”
The audience weighed in, too. During the forum a hospice nurse spoke of dignity and a painless beautiful death.
A geriatrician from Indiana stood up and said, “That’s a myth. There are many symptoms that the doctors cannot control,” and she listed intolerable itching and hallucinations from pain medication.
“I have had patients with neuromuscular diseases who know they cannot ask anyone else to kill them. They have killed themselves as soon as they got the diagnosis.”
And while no one in the Stratford audience on that summer day voiced any fundamental objection to the legalization of assisted suicide, a sense of caution hung in the air highlighing the fact that there are no easy answers in this debate.
[The Sunday Edition on CBC radio spends its first hour this week at the Stratford Forum. There are interviews with playwrights Judith Thompson and Itai Erdal, and voices from the forum discussion. Karin Wells is this week’s guest host sitting in for Michael Enright.]