Greg Robinson doesn't want to die.
As a retired MD, he has a rich life. He has strong support from his spouse, his friends and his church. His many volunteer activities give his life meaning and purpose.
But Greg has HIV/AIDS. He lives with the knowledge that the time will come when his life becomes an endless struggle with pain, nausea, vomiting, breathlessness and extreme fatigue - a time when continued life seems more harmful than a gentle death. When that time comes, Greg asks two things of the medical system he spent his life serving: excellent palliative care and the right to choose a medically-assisted death.
He is certainly making an informed decision. As a family doctor who practiced in a palliative care setting, Greg has seen many gentle deaths. He has also seen too many deaths of the kind that fuel his personal fears.
In the 1980s, before the discovery of life-saving medications for AIDS, he watched his partner Blair die a horrific death. Blair was tormented throughout his last months by the painful lymph glands that swelled from his emaciated frame. In the final weeks, pneumonia cut off his breathing, often causing him to choke on his own fluids. Administration of oral morphine for the relentless pain became impossible. Blair lost all control of his bodily functions. He required 24-hour care from nurses, volunteers and a team of friends.
Greg saw many of those same friends go on to gruesome deaths. Greg survived, but at a terrible price. For 20 years Greg has coped with debilitating side effects from the drugs used to save his life. He has developed liver cirrhosis, diabetes, cancer, and bone disease. He is often nauseous, frequently vomits and has relentless diarrhea. A low heart rate and broken joints severely limit his activity. If Greg spends more than three hours on anything more physically demanding then sitting or lying down, he knows he'll spend the next few days in bed recovering.
Despite his frail physical condition, Greg is relentless in his pursuit of the right of every Canadian to legal access to a gentle death when suffering becomes unbearable.
He sees hope in the recent BC Supreme Court decision in the Carter case, in which the current absolute ban on assisted suicide was overturned. The court recognized that, in some instances, allowing someone medical assistance to die was not only humane -- but a human right. Gloria Taylor and her co-plaintiffs won the right for grievously ill Canadians to have medical assistance to end their suffering, at a time of their choosing. Federal Attorney General Robert Nicholson has appealed this decision: The BC Court of Appeal will begin hearings on March 4, 2013.
People like Gloria Taylor die dreadful deaths every day, after suffering for years with mounting chronic and terminal illnesses. As a man who has seen such tragic deaths, and as a doctor who has provided palliative care, Greg Robinson knows exactly what he speaks of when he says: "There is some suffering only death can end."
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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