The head of the Canadian Medical Association has stated that it's time for physicians to debate the issues of euthanasia and assisted dying -- and we couldn't agree more.
We are greatly encouraged by the CMA's recent poll of physicians that found should euthanasia be legalized, 26 per cent would be willing to actively participate. A further 20 per cent were undecided. This is a stunning number.
Remember, this number is not physicians who support assisted dying -- that number is much higher. (For example, a 2005 US survey of physicians indicated that nearly two-thirds -- 62 per cent -- believe that physicians should be permitted to dispense life-ending prescriptions.) This number is those who would personally be willing to participate. And this is just the beginning.
In jurisdictions where choice has been legalized, we have seen increasing support from the medical community and the general public once end-of-life choice is legalized. Small wonder. Before legalization, anti-choice zealots harangue us from their pulpits, predicting carnage and mayhem.
Once assisted dying is legalized, medical professionals and the public see for themselves the positive changes that result. Palliative care improves. Doctors become better at caring for individuals at end of life. Conversations between doctors and patients about desired end-of-life care take place. Medical professionals in jurisdictions where end-of-life choice is legalized overwhelmingly support patients' rights to choose. The facts are that compelling.
Fortunately, more and more medical professionals are speaking out. High-profile doctors such as Dr. Louis Francescutti, the current head of the CMA, Dr. Derryck Smith, the past president of the BCMA and noted columnist Dr. Gifford-Jones have all added their voices to the call for increased patient autonomy and end-of-life choice.
Pictured: Dr. Derryck Smith, Former President of BCMA, Dying With Dignity Board Member and Co-Chair of Dying With Dignity's Advisory Council of Physicians.
Thirteen doctors joined a newly formed Advisory Council of Physicians for Dying With Dignity and are playing a key role in expanding end-of-life choice. Their thoughtful contributions have already resulted in the release of principles for federal legalization.
Some argue that palliative care is enough -- and usually it is. But how can we ignore the suffering of those for whom it isn't? Dr. Larry Librach, a well-known and much-loved palliative care physician, was outspoken against assisted dying early in his career. Then he faced horrific deaths that happened even in palliative care. He came to realize that no matter how good the care, there was some suffering only death could end. That is why he spoke openly in support of assisted dying in the years leading up to his death.
Canada can be proud that the hearing of Gloria Taylor's challenge for the right-to-die included an unheralded amount of evidence and testimony from both lay people and international experts. Justice Lynn Smith, a constitutional law expert was unequivocal in her conclusion: the safeguards work, Canada should allow medically assisted dying.
Hopefully very few of us will need medically assisted dying, but like life jackets on a boat, many of us will benefit from the peace of mind that comes from knowing help is there if we need it.
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)
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