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Buried in a stack of affidavits filed in a right-to-die case is a remarkable, anonymous document that breaks a deep, long-held family secret about how two chronically ill parents were guided to death.
It is sworn by a 63-year-old social worker from British Columbia who identifies himself only as L.M., because he fears he, his sister and others could face criminal charges for assisting in the deaths.
The document – one of many that chronicles the shattering emotional journeys endured by those involved in assisted deaths – illustrates a key argument being made in Carter versus the Attorney-General of Canada.
Joseph Arvay, a lawyer representing the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and a group of individuals challenging the Criminal Code, has told court that because it is illegal for physicians to help the chronically ill die, people are forced to help take lives secretly, the way women once sought back-alley abortions.
The case, now before the Supreme Court of British Columbia, is the first constitutional challenge in 18 years to the law that makes doctor-assisted suicide illegal in Canada.
L.M. writes that his family twice went through the ordeal of assisted deaths – first when his father found a physician who was prepared to prescribe illegally a lethal overdose of morphine, and then with his mother, whom he and his sister helped die.
“I have kept my story a secret for many years, only telling a few of my closest friends. I am afraid that if the truth of my situation becomes known … we could all be criminally prosecuted,” L.M. states.
In 1996, he got a shocking phone call from his mother, “telling me that my father had seen his doctor and had worked out a plan to end his life within the next few days.”
Although his father was chronically ill with lung cancer, the suddenness of the decision stunned him.
“I reacted badly,” he states. “I was very angry … I just could not accept that this was what he was going to do.”
But L.M. writes that after a long discussion with his father’s doctor, he accepted the decision. His father later died of a morphine overdose. The family agreed to keep secret the role played by the doctor who supplied the drugs and the mother, who was there for the final injection.
A decade later, his mother’s turn came. She was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer, adenocystic carcinoma.
“I received a call from my mother from out of the blue. In a very frank and blunt conversation, she told me that she wanted to end her life and wanted my help to do this. This turned into a very tearful conversation,” he wrote. “In spite of having been down this road before … somehow I had not prepared for this conversation. ... My feelings were all about grief and loss – about losing my mother, my last parent .... In tears, I told her that I would do everything I could to support her choice and help her with a means to end her life.”
But this journey was to prove more difficult, because no physician was willing to provide an overdose of morphine.
L.M. turned to the Internet, and, after a few false starts, ordered a lethal amount of amitriptyline, an anti-depressant.
“Finally … a small package arrived at the front desk of the assisted living complex. ... You cannot imagine the feelings that washed over me. Elation that I could finally help my mom, but also trepidation and fear,” he wrote.
The family took their mother home, drew the blinds, and began to prepare. L.M. wrote that he crushed the amitriptyline pills with a pestle and mortar while his sister pounded them to dust with a hammer.
“Finally, we had all of the pills crushed into a fine powder that we could dissolve in some juice. ... My sister and I then went up to the bedroom with our instruction sheet and all of the drugs. We talked my mom through the steps and she then said ‘that we should just get on with it.’ She had had enough. ... Mom knocked back each glass … She did not vomit. She had incredible will power.
“My sister and I then sat with her for a while talking with her and holding her hands, crying away as mom slipped into a deep sleep,” wrote L.M.
The family gathered in the kitchen and waited for death. At 8 p.m., L.M.’s brother-in-law came downstairs to say he thought she had died.
“We all went up,” wrote L.M. “ I felt for pulse. I listened for a heartbeat. I used a mirror to check for breath under the nostrils.”
It was finally over.
“I feel privileged and honoured that I was able to help my mom,” he wrote. “It was psychologically and physically draining, but I know that I did the right thing. My sister and I agreed that because we could be criminally prosecuted for helping mom, we would keep it a secret. I have lived with the secret ever since.”