As part of our coverage on end-of-life issues, The Globe asked readers to tell us how you felt about assisted suicide. The responses, both for and against, were pointed and poignant, so reporter Sandra Martin approached several respondents to expand on their views. Here’s what they had to say, a taste of the debate to come after Quebec introduced its landmark legislation on the issue.
The right to choose to end your life
John G. Yorke, 62, New Glasgow, N.S.
I’m an industrial engineer, who is married with two grown children. When I lived in Vancouver, I had a season’s pass to Whistler and I went downhill skiing 25 times a year. I loved running around the seawall in Stanley Park. I was always a physically active and fit person. I loved working on cars and doing renovations around the house. After 20 years in Vancouver and going through a couple of job upheavals, I told my wife, ‘If you want to go back to the Maritimes I will.’ We moved back in 1995 and I was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in 1998. When the mill [in Campbellton, N.B.] shut down, my family moved to New Glasgow and I joined them when I had to go on long-term disability in 2001. My left hand is useless and I had to retrain myself to use my right hand. I can barely sign my name now, and when I go on the computer I type very slowly with one finger on one hand. I have been in a wheelchair since 2003.
Before I was diagnosed, I watched the Sue Rodriguez case back in 1993 and I told myself if this ever happened to me I would want the right to end it when I thought it was time. There are still things I enjoy, like meals with family and friends and watching football on TV, so as long as I can live at home with family support, life isn’t too bad.
But I made my mind up a long time ago that I wasn’t going into institutional care. I don’t want to live that way. I’m very close to my family and they support my decision. I am aware that there are different drugs that would do the job, but I have reached a point that I am no longer physically capable of mixing up the drugs myself. I can barely hold a glass. That’s why I support a change in the legislation, because if somebody helps me now, they could be legally charged [for aiding a suicide]. I would like it made possible for me to find a doctor who would be willing to assist me like they do at Dignitas in Switzerland. I can’t go there because of the cost.
Christopher White, 56, Toronto
I have been a United Church minister for 26 years, first in Edmonton, then in Whitby, Ont., where we built a new church. For the last 2 1/2 years I’ve been back in Toronto in the neighourhood I grew up in. I’m married with two daughters.
One of the challenges of right to die and the issues that come from religious communities is that death is in God’s hands, and not something we, as human beings, should interfere with. Part of the concern from religious communities is the potential for abuse. Unfortunately, we have historical examples of oppressive states deciding who gets to live and who gets to die.
We are in a place now where medicine has the capacity to extend existence, but not to extend life. I think we need to be very clear about the difference between extending existence and a life where we get to participate in the community and live as we wish, even if there are disability and health issues. When medical science simply prolongs existence, then I think we are in a very different place. We know that if people who are terminally ill are given a certain level of morphine, it will draw their lives to an end, but we don’t say [to medical authorities] you shouldn’t do that because it interferes with nature or with God. As a society we need to say to people that if it is a choice, not between life and death, but between existence and death, what are your wishes? We already have that capacity with Do Not Resuscitate orders. But, as a minister I have seen families fighting tooth and nail not to have life support turned off for somebody who needs to be let go. Death is a natural part of life. We need to accept that. If you are in a nursing home and you have a DNR on file, it doesn’t necessarily apply if you are transferred to hospital. You have to have a separate DNR at the hospital. People don’t realize this.
The concerns that people have regarding the need for appropriate controls are completely legitimate and must be taken with great seriousness. Equally the ethical and moral issues need to be addressed with depth and thought. But treating people with compassionate dignity, relieving unnecessary and inevitable suffering by allowing them the grace of a peaceful death is something that we as a society need to deal with now. As individuals we need to have these discussions, so everybody in our family knows our wishes, rather than being forced to make a decision under enormous emotional stress.
Dan Way, 26, Toronto
I have three degrees, including one in medical science and another in education, and I am hoping to find a job in the health/sport field. Meanwhile, I’m working part-time at a Mountain Equipment Co-op. I have optimal physical and mental health and an entire life of happiness to look forward to, but I feel I should be able to take control of any and all circumstances.
I found myself becoming very outspoken in conversations with friends and family when a number of pieces were being written about the B.C. Supreme Court and the challenge to the Criminal Code on assisting a suicide. If I am ever in the situation where I am dependent on others and incurring a lot of medical and financial costs for what is ultimately a losing cause, I feel it is ridiculous that others will be unable to intervene without becoming liable. I shouldn’t be thinking about this for years to come, but I saw how difficult it was for my family to deal with my grandfather when he developed Alzheimer’s disease. It shocked me to watch somebody I knew so well slowly disappear. It was a long, drawn-out process and my grandmother did the best job she could, but eventually he had to be put in a home. That sparked my interest in the topic.
I believe it likely that one day I will take my own life. I will do so in a safe and peaceful manner at a time and place I choose for myself and hope to be surrounded by loving and supportive friends and family. I fear that our current medical and legal systems are obliged and pressured to preserve life to its maximum quantity regardless of its quality. I want to be no part of that system. I hope that with time, these systems will change to honour and uphold the integrity of each individual and the choices they deem in their own best interest. Unfortunately that time is not now and so many people are forced to take matters into their own hands. I think they should be celebrated for their courage and forward-thinking.
Patricia “Paddy” Muir, 66, Halifax
I’m an intermittently retired writer living with my husband and dog – all of us aging as gracefully as we can. I support a person’s right to make an informed decision to end his or her life if an incurable medical condition makes the future intolerable, and I would like to see this option available and legal in Canada.
Most of us will, fortunately, never face this type of decision. But in this country many will die as a sort of afterthought as far as the health-care system is concerned. With technology driving the system, length seems often to trump quality.
While caring for my elderly mother and keeping several friends company on their end-of-life journeys, I have noticed how easily people can get sucked into the system and lose control, despite care directives and powers of attorney. I am also constantly dismayed to see how often palliative care seems to be considered synonymous with failure.
I volunteer with a group striving to establish a hospice in Halifax. For decades, hospices have offered a compassionate, effective, cost-effective alternative for care of the dying and their families when a home death is not possible. Yet three out of four Canadians are still dying in an acute or extended-care bed despite most expressing other preferences. Why is it so difficult for the system in some parts of Canada to see the value of the hospice-care model and embrace its potential as an integral part of our health-care system?
The isolated and alone are terribly vulnerable in an increasingly fragmented, technological and cash-strapped society. Who fights for the right to a peaceful compassionate death for someone who has the misfortune to end up alone and without an advocate?
When I am dying, I hope there will be someone to listen and reassure, make me a cup of tea or find a warm pair of socks – and not leave me stranded on the commode for an hour.
Good end-of-life care is actually life-affirming and can help everyone involved. As a society, we can and should do it better – because we all die.
The risk of giving people that choice
William (Bill) Peace, 53, Katonah, N.Y.
I am an anthropologist by trade and for the last six years have worked in bioethics and disability. I am also on the board of directors of Not Dead Yet [a disability rights group that opposes legalization of assisted suicide]. I’m divorced and have a son Tom, who is 21 and a university student. I had profound neurological problems as a kid and went through the medical mill just before high technology was available (bad timing for sure). Paralyzed since I was 18 years old, I have spent much of the last 30 years thinking about the reasons why the social life of crippled people is so different from those who ambulate on two feet.
I classify the case of Susan Griffiths [the Winnipeg woman suffering from Multiple System Atrophy who ended her life at Dignitas in Switzerland in April] as suicide tourism. And, yes, I am being derogatory. She had many options to end her life and selected a highly public way to do this. At a personal level I do not like this sort of grandstanding. There are lots of ways to advocate for or against assisted suicide without resorting to what she did. We need a reasoned or nuanced debate regardless of whether one is pro or con.
Assisted suicide laws appear to make sense. Scratch the surface, read articles about the subject and one will quickly conclude such laws are inherently dangerous. Assisted suicide is a threat to at-risk populations such as infants born with severe disabilities or adults with disabilities. Other populations at risk include the elderly and terminally ill. The fact is, people end their life because they fear losing their autonomy and independence. No one asks the question why? Why do people choose to die rather than adapt and seek out social supports that make life possible? Social supports for the disabled are grossly inadequate and the assumption is death is preferable to life with a severe disability. Ms. Griffith exemplified this. She did not consider living when given a grim diagnosis. What did she know about disability? Nothing. This says nothing of elder abuse, an all too common problem.
The reason most often stated for legalizing assisted suicide is unrelieved pain. Statistics associated with suicide in Oregon and Washington reveal pain is not a major variable. Instead, fear of dependency and loss of autonomy are prime reasons people choose to die. Safeguards are inadequate in the U.S. and abroad. The reporting requirements are woefully inadequate. If we look at assisted suicide abroad, the Netherlands in particular, originally the laws were very restrictive. But over time the laws became more lax and Pandora’s box was opened. As for Canada, given the effort to reduce health-care costs I worry assisted suicide will be utilized as a cost-saving measure. because the health-care system in your country is facing severe cutbacks.
Denise Baillargeon, 67, Toronto
I’m married with four grown children and retired after working for 12 years as a simultaneous interpreter in English and French for the Ontario Legislative Assembly at Queen’s Park. I am against assisted suicide because I don’t think I am the author of my life. I didn’t choose to come into this world – I wasn’t consulted – and I don’t believe I should choose to exit. It is as simple as that. It is an argument that I can’t get my head around. I am a practising Roman Catholic, but I think this is a moral belief rather than a religious one. I would make the same argument for others who want to have help ending their lives. I think we will be on a very slippery slope that will see us euthanizing handicapped people and older people. Even if there are safeguards, the legislation can be amended down the road. I worked in government long enough to be very, very cynical.
Gail Grolimond, Montreal
Having recently experienced providing palliative care for my father, in his home, albeit, surrounded by love of family, I cannot express clearly enough the despair a palliative provider experiences when a loved one is suffering and asking for the end to come. The loss of a loved one was less traumatic for me than was observing his suffering without being able to provide a peaceful, pain-free passing. We were luckier than most as the journey lasted 33 days, while others suffer for years. I do wish that I had been able to support my father’s wish to die with dignity.
Clint Forster, Victoria
The law should be changed. We should all be permitted to obey the dictates of our own consciences. Those who are opposed to assisted suicide should not consider it an option in their lives. But they should not impose their views on others.
John Montgomery, Barrie, Ont.
I am a senior citizen and I am enjoying my life right now in these “tight-rope” years. At any moment, I could fall off – either by my inadvertence or by nature’s decision. Regardless of the cause of the resulting terminal condition, it is still – bless you, Sue Rodriguez – my life to own. I strongly support and demand a humanizing of our Canadian laws in order to restore control of my life to me and on behalf of others of like mind.
Lori Hahnel, Calgary
We do this for our pets, and should have the choice for our loved ones and ourselves.
Roxie Lozier, Parksville, B.C.
As a nurse I have watched people suffer at the end of their lives while they want to die, but they linger for days, sometimes weeks even without food and water. Morphine and other drugs help but all have side effects that can be just as disturbing as the symptom that the drug is prescribed for. If I have a choice at the end of my life, I would bypass the final days of agony.
Melanie Iozzo, B.C.
I am 100-per-cent against legalized euthanasia/the right to die. It is a slippery slope – who can end their life? How do we know they are competent to make that decision on their own? That there has been no coercion? What is a justifiable reason to end your life? Can a child make that decision for an ailing parent with or without their parents’ consent in cases of dementia or financial hardship? Quality of life? Can a parent then make this decision for a child with special needs? And on and on and on. ... We must improve palliative care for our ill and suffering population before we further legalize the destruction of human life. Life is a gift. Every human life has value. Human beings are not disposable.
Gene Cyr, Delta, B.C.
Assisted suicide is murder and must not be considered being something otherwise.
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