Eight days before he died of a brain tumour, Donald Low, one of Canada’s eminent microbiologists, summoned his waning strength in a video plea for assisted suicide.
“Why make people suffer for no reason when there is an alternative?” he asked, adding an authoritative medical voice to a surging national debate.
“He wanted to say something public about the struggle he went through to [try to] have an assisted death, preferably with the types of barbiturates that are available in the countries that allow it,” his widow, Maureen Taylor, said in an interview about the video, which went live Tuesday.
Dr. Low, who died Sept. 18 without assistance, was the infectious disease expert who became the calming voice and medical face during the SARS crisis a decade ago. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour seven months ago.
“I am not afraid of dying,” he said in the video, “what worries me is how I’m going to die.”
He wondered aloud if he would end up paralyzed, unable to swallow or even talk with his family while he endured a protracted and painful death.
Even before his diagnosis, Dr. Low, 68, was in favour of legalizing medical assistance for “people who were terminally ill and of sound mind,” Ms. Taylor said, but it wasn’t until he was facing his own imminent demise that he tried to turn theory into reality. “There is no place in Canada where you can have support for dying with dignity,” he concluded.
The couple talked about going to Switzerland, where non-residents can swallow a toxic potion and fall into a terminal sleep, but “he wasn’t prepared to go away to die without his kids and my kids around him,” said Ms. Taylor. And he wanted to be here for the anticipated birth of a grandson in July and the wedding of his stepdaughter in late August. They also investigated speeding his death with helium, but “if I was caught buying the gas tanks, then I could have gone to jail,” she said.
Time was running out when the videographers from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer arrived in early September. “Don wasn’t able to speak fluently, but he pulled it out of a hat,” Ms. Taylor recalled. Hearing was also a problem. Ms. Taylor had to relay the producer’s questions because hers was the only voice her husband could still distinguish. But there is no mistaking the challenge that the dying physician issued to doctors who oppose assisted suicide: “I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours. … I am frustrated not being able to control my own life.”
Dr. Low isn’t the only dying patient to rail against Canada’s prohibition against assisted suicide. Twenty years ago, Sue Rodriguez, a British Columbia woman with ALS, took her request for medical help in ending her life to the Supreme Court of Canada. Ms. Rodriguez lost her challenge, but the debate continued.
In June, 2012, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the Criminal Code section on assisted suicide was discriminatory and suspended the decision for a year to give the federal government time to draft a revision. Instead, the government has appealed the BC ruling.
Meanwhile, Quebec tabled right-to-die legislation in the National Assembly last June. Committee hearings into Bill 52, which contains the most radical end-of-life options of any jurisdiction in North America, began last week and are scheduled to continue into October. Among the witnesses expected to appear are representatives from Alzheimer’s and disabilities associations and experts on all sides of the debate, including professors Jocelyn Downie of Dalhousie University and Margaret Somerville of McGill University.