There are so few experiences that are universally shared, and now, unburdened by shame, we quite happily talk about them all. Childbirth? Bring on the videographer! Sex? Please read my erotic poetry. But death? Death rips our tongues out.
That may change soon, at least where end-of-life debates are concerned. Last week, Manitoba Conservative MP Steven Fletcher tabled two private member’s bills to legislate assisted dying. The first, Bill C-581, would allow for adult Canadians to seek their own demise, assisted by two doctors, should they be suffering from a disease or disability “that causes physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to that person and that cannot be alleviated by any medical treatment acceptable to that person.” The second bill would set up a commission to study physician-assisted suicide.
“We can keep people alive,” Mr. Fletcher told The Globe. “We can’t always allow people to live.”
It is unlikely that Mr. Fletcher will get much support for the bills, not least from his own party. There is still political stonewalling around the issue, despite the fact that cracks are opening – not just here, but around the world. Quebec’s assisted dying bill, several years in the making, was close to becoming law when it expired at the election call. (A new government may resurrect it.) The supreme courts of Canada and British Columbia are about to look at euthanasia cases again.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron – himself opposed to assisted-death legislation – is allowing a free vote on a bill in the next few months.
Mr. Fletcher has said he wants the issue debated in Parliament, not determined by the courts. Conservative Justice Minister Peter MacKay said that this is a “very, very personal issue” for Mr. Fletcher, and that the government is “not in any hurry” to reopen it.
There’s no doubt the issue is “very personal” for Mr. Fletcher, a quadriplegic since a car accident in 1996, but that doesn’t mean his experience isn’t valid. In fact, it’s crucial. When explorers come back from uncharted terrain, you expect them to share knowledge about their discoveries. In the same way, end-of-life debates require the wisdom of those who have been closest to death.
Often, the dying aren’t afraid of death – but of dying badly, in pain, their fate out of their hands. Celebrated Toronto microbiologist Donald Low, in a video posted before his death last year, said: “I’m not afraid of dying … I just don’t want to have a long, protracted process where I’m unable to carry out my normal bodily functions and talk to my family and enjoy the last few days of my life.”
He acknowledged that there are many well-meaning opponents of assisted suicide: “I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours.” When writer Christopher Hitchens was asked whether he feared his impending death, he said, “I’m afraid of a sordid death. I’m afraid I would die in an ugly or squalid way.”
This week, a letter from Toronto lawyer Edward Hung was widely circulated. Mr. Hung, suffering from ALS, had chosen his death in a Swiss clinic. He pointed out that only the wealthy can afford to do it that way. In essence, we’ve created a two-tiered death system. “Our Parliament should allow Canadians to have easy access to assistance for their demise,” Mr. Hung wrote, “and I hope it would come soon.”
While we keep putting off the debate about assisted suicide, more terminally ill people will be denied the peaceful end they crave. At the moment, that end is available only if you can afford to travel for it – there’s the final indignity.
Revisiting this made me think of my own father’s death. Even though he had suffered a debilitating disease through most of his adult life, I never asked how he wanted to die. It would have been a difficult and painful question, but I should have asked it. Even as his heart failed, his eyes failed and he said he felt like an old car with bits falling off, no one inquired about how he wanted to spend his final days.
At least not until the emergency room doctor asked, on the last day of his life, whether he wanted to be resuscitated. He said no. Finally, someone consulted him on the kind of death he desired, and she listened, and he was gone.