Just what is a dignified death?
Proponents of assisted suicide constantly evoke the “right to die with dignity” in seeking a Supreme Court of Canada ruling striking down Criminal Code provisions banning the practice. What they really mean is that they want to control the circumstances of their own deaths.
This is an an entirely legitimate desire, and the Supreme Court should grant them their wish. It’s a free country, after all, and our Charter right to life and liberty surely includes the right to choose when and how to end it all.
But to suggest that ending one’s life with the help of a doctor or loved one is the “dignified” way to go is as shallow as it is hubristic. We come into this world helpless and, traditionally, most of us have gone out of it that way. That’s not undignified. It’s one of the things that makes us human.
Being human means admitting that we’re often powerless to control the curveballs life throws at us and the people we love. All we can do is try and learn from them. This is anathema to baby boomers. Brainwashed by self-help books into believing they can control everything, they somehow forgot they were mortal. As they face their final decades, it’s hitting them like a brick.
No wonder B.C. psychotherapist Gillian Bennett’s recent suicide note struck such a chord with Canadians. Ms. Bennett chose to end her life before her dementia progressed to the stage of “not knowing who I am.” She would have preferred waiting so that her husband could help her die when she got closer to “gaga.” But the law still forbids that, and she wanted to outrun her disease before it outran her.
“I can live or vegetate for perhaps 10 years in hospital at Canada’s expense … It is ludicrous, wasteful and unfair,” the 85-year-old great-grandmother wrote. “As we, the elderly, undergo manifold operations and become gaga while taking up a hospital bed, our grandchildren’s schooling, their educational, athletic and cultural opportunities, will be squeezed dry.”
Of all the reasons to back assisted suicide, this is perhaps the worst and most dangerous.
The fact that we’ve organized our health-care system incoherently should not make chronic-care patients feel guilty about occupying scarce acute-care hospital beds. For every dollar our health-care system might save if more ALS, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis or terminal cancer patients ended their lives prematurely, we’d all lose a bit more of our humanity.
Our shifting demographics makes clear the need to reorganize our health-care system. Just 16 per cent of terminally ill Canadians have access to quality palliative care. And the majority of Canadian medical schools offer fewer than 10 hours of palliative-care training to new doctors. Until that changes, more dying Canadians will see assisted suicide as the “dignified” way to go. This is the opposite of social progress.
Of course, we suffer when others suffer. But if a fatal diagnosis routinely becomes an invitation to assisted suicide, we are devaluing one of the most important parts of life – its ending. Given our modern medicine, no terminally ill patient should have to experience unbearable physical pain. The duress, for patients and their loved ones, is mostly psychological. And it scares us silly.
For many, such suffering is needless and pointless and they will never be persuaded otherwise. The law should be changed to accommodate them. But you don’t have to be religious to feel that the dying – even gaga ones – pass on meaningful lessons to the living.
Think of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, the crotchety morphine addict from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch forces his son Jem to read to her daily to ease her through her withdrawal symptoms, as she seeks to “die free.”
“I wanted you to see what real courage is,” Atticus tells Jem afterward. “… It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won … She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
Real life is not always so poignant, of course. It’s raw and painful and its meaning is not always immediately apparent. But as humbling as a disease can be, it is never undignified to stick it out.