One day, society will look back at the way we currently allow some people to spend their last stretch of time on Earth, and it will abhor us.
I’ll admit that I have been unsure in the past about the “right to die.” On one hand, I understand there are people whose lives have become essentially valueless, because of illness, tragedy or some other reason. Because of that, they would rather not spend their final days trapped in a world of misery, despair, pain and/or physical suffering.
At the same time, I’ve had trouble imagining signing an order to end a person’s life, especially if that person was someone I spent a lifetime loving. The last couple of years of my father’s life were dreadful and without an ounce of joy. Knowing him as I did, he wouldn’t have relished a second of it. At the same time, I wasn’t sure I could ever say Yes in a sibling vote to end his life, regardless of how humane it might be.
Now, I realize how incredibly selfish that point of view was.
I came to this opinion recently while watching my younger brother die of cancer. It was as heart-wrenching an ordeal as I’ve ever been through, even though he and I were never particularly close. Seeing your flesh and blood, someone you love, in the condition he was as his life drew to a close was jarring and upsetting.
When I first saw him in hospital, I barely recognized the person with whom I’d once shared a bedroom. His skin hung off his bones. Once one of the strongest, most robust persons I’d ever known, he might have weighed 36 kilograms in the final week of his life. As he lay in his room, he was often delusional. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He ripped out drips that had been inserted into various parts of his body as he flailed about. He could only mumble a few words, but the ones he whispered to me one afternoon I will never forget: “I want to die, Gary. Please let me die.”
He implored me to steal a needle somewhere and do the job myself.
You can imagine how difficult this was for his family to witness. This was certainly not how I wanted to remember my brother. It was nothing close to the dignified end most of us hope for. In fact, his were precisely the circumstances that would qualify for physician-assisted death consideration in more enlightened jurisdictions around the world.
My brother spent a few more days in this state before his body finally gave out. And there wasn’t a person who cared for him who wasn’t relieved his suffering was over. Going to visit him had become an excruciating experience for everyone. No one wants to see someone they love conclude their life on those terms.
I know there are many Canadians who have shared similar experiences, maybe ones that have also reshaped their thinking on the question of dying with dignity. There seems little doubt now that we are going to have a national debate on this matter, and this is only a good thing. The Supreme Court of Canada is set to rule on it for a second time. And of course, the province of Quebec has already gone ahead with comprehensive end-of-life legislation, which could also get challenged in the courts.
Just this week, Britain’s highest court challenged that country’s Parliament to consider legalizing assisted suicide on the grounds that the current law criminalizing the act may well be incompatible with human rights.
I’m not suggesting for a second that there is anything straightforward about this discussion. The question of whether the sanctity of life trumps personal freedom, or vice versa, is a complex and divisive one. It’s also vulnerable to histrionics, overstatement and oversimplification.
But as part of this dialogue, we need to look at how right-to-die jurisdictions have fared, including U.S. states and European countries. Most of the evidence suggests there has not been a dramatic surge in physician-assisted deaths as a result of the more liberal laws in this area.
As Canada’s baby boomers begin their grand exit, the demand for a debate on this subject is only going to intensify. After witnessing the sad and mostly undignified end to my brother’s life, I know where I now stand.