Following the recommendations of a provincial panel of legal experts on medically assisted end-of-life procedures, the government of Quebec has announced plans to proceed with its "dying with dignity" legislation -- paving the way for doctors in the province to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives.
"Every person should be able to make their own choice according to their values and according to their experience, their life, at the end of their life," said Jean-Paul Ménard, who led the legal panel.
As expected however, the federal government has made it clear that it is unwilling to change the current laws prohibiting medically assisted life-ending procedures -- even announcing plans to appeal last June's ruling in the B.C. Supreme Court partially striking down the ban.
Usually, this would be the point where both sides get stuck at that tired old impasse.
Yet the legal experts conclude that Quebec could bypass the Criminal Code altogether due to the provincial healthcare system's continuum of care -- permitting a terminally ill patient receiving palliative treatments who can demonstrate a lucid desire to end their life, assistance in doing so by virtue of the Quebec government's duty to care for its citizens.
"The constitutional basis is clear... We are really in a field of regulating end-of-life care -- and adding the possibility for somebody to have access to medical aid in dying," concluded Véronique Hivon, Quebec's social services minister.
In case you haven't already noticed, there is one term that is missing from both the legal panels' findings, and the statements made by the Quebec government on the matter -- euthanasia.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this was done on purpose -- euthanasia is one of those smooth sounding words that inescapably stirs up an unproductive debate fuelled by passion as opposed to pragmatism.
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Here's a look at the state of Euthanasia laws in Canada and their history.
Suicide hasn't been a crime in Canada since 1972. (Shutterstock)
Doctor-assisted suicide is illegal, although the ruling of the B.C. Supreme Court will force Parliament to alter the law within one year. The Criminal Code of Canada states in section 241 that: "Every one who (a) counsels a person to commit suicide, or (b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years." (Alamy)
Passive euthanasia involves letting a patient die instead of prolonging life with medical measures. Passive euthanasia is legal in Canada. The decision is left in the hands of family or a designated proxy. Written wishes, including those found in living wills, do not have to be followed by family or a proxy. (Alamy)
Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), launched a case asking the Supreme Court of Canada to allow her to end her own life on the grounds that the current law discriminated against her disability. Because suicide is legal in Canada and Rodriguez was unable to end her life because of a lack of mobility, she argued it was discriminatory to prevent her from ending her own life with the aid of another. The court refused her request in 1993, but one year later she ended her life anyway with the help of an unnamed doctor. (CP)
Robert Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of his severely disabled daughter Tracy. A lack of oxygen during Tracy's birth led to cerebral palsy and serious mental and physical disabilities, including seizures and the inability to walk or talk. Her father ended Tracy's life by placing her in his truck and connecting a hose to the vehicle's exhaust.The case led to a heated debate over euthanasia in Canada and two Supreme Court challenges. Latimer was granted day parole in 2008 and full parole in 2010. (CP)
Former Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde tried repeatedly to get legislation legalizing euthanasia in Canada passed. Bill C-407 and Bill C-384 were both aimed at making assisted suicide legal. C-384 was defeated in the House 228 to 59, with many Bloc MPs and a handful of members from all other parties voting for the legislation. Tetraplegic Tory MP Steven Fletcher, pictured, made the following statement after C-384 was defeated: "I would like to be recorded as abstaining on this bill. The reason is I believe end of life issues need to be debated more in our country. I believe that life should be the first choice but not the only choice and that we have to ensure that resources and supports are provided to Canadians so that choice is free. I believe, when all is said and done, the individual is ultimately responsible. I want to make this decision for myself, and if I cannot, I want my family to make the decision. I believe most Canadians, or many Canadians, feel the same. As William Henley said in his poem Invictus, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."(CP)
It's a word which has been annexed by some of the overly zealous pro-lifers -- proclaiming their respect for "human life," whilst simultaneously showing none to any human who wants a sliver of control over their own life as they struggle through a horrendous situation, the likes of which I doubt many pro-lifers have personally experienced.
It's a word that conjures up images of fear-mongering and disjointed propaganda, which attempt to draw parallels between the consenting death of a very sick and competent person and the threatened suicide of a manically depressed teenager.
In short, the lexicon for the term is pejorative -- forever linked to depression, suicide, and elderly abuse. Don't get me wrong, those are huge problems we need to address as a society, but they are by no means directly correlated to the medically assisted suicide of a terminally ill and competent adult.
So can we please stop treating them as such.
It is for these very reasons that the choice -- a conscious one in my opinion, was made by the provincial panel and the Quebec government to refer to its medically assisted end-of-life procedures as "dying with dignity" as opposed to euthanasia.
I'm sure this clever phrasing won't deter the staunchest pro-lifers from once again climbing into your hospital beds and telling you or your loved ones to stop complaining and just suffer through the insurmountable pain quietly so that they can go to bed at night knowing they "protected human life."
It might however, pull the debate surrounding euthanasia back from the precipice of absurdity on which it currently teeters by reminding us all that the discussion should not be a nationwide showdown between pro-lifers and pro-choicers.
It's much less complicated than that.
Instead, the discussion should be a private one between a palliative and terminally ill patent and their doctor regarding the role said physician will play in accompanying them towards the inevitability of death with as much dignity and medical assistance as possible.
I can already hear the critics barking back -- "euthanasia is a slippery slope."
But it's not really -- if a culturally comparable locale that legally permits dying with dignity such as Oregon is any indication, this slope isn't very slippery at all.
Physician-assisted suicide has been legal in the state for over a decade, but it only accounts for one in every 1,000 deaths each year. So even though the number of patents discussing the option with their families -- 1 in 6, or their doctors -- 1 in 50, is actually quite high, the safeguards appear to work.
That fact that very few people opt for the procedure shows that while many may seek out information regarding a medically assisted end-of-life, virtually none of them go through with it -- instead choosing to take mere solace in the fact that it's an option if the pain becomes too unbearable.
So to reiterate for the umpteenth time, there aren't really any scary precedents or slippery slopes here. What there is, is an alternative to an existence of suffering and pain that should, and can be afforded to a terminally ill, palliative treated, mentally competent adult.
It's time to shift away from the messy public spectacles regarding euthanasia. Instead let's follow Quebec's lead -- Canadians everywhere should be able to choose from a full range of end-of-life options, including -- if the prerequisites are met, the option of a medically assisted suicide.
After all, isn't that what democracy is about -- barring that no one else is directly affronted without his or her consent, the freedom to live life, or end it, as one sees fit? If so, then why does this freedom somehow become contingent when one is on their deathbed?
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