Microbiologist Donald Low’s voice has been stilled, but the video appeal to legalize assisted suicide that he made before his death is resonating around dinner tables, on talk shows and in the political corridors of Queen’s Park.
“People deserve the best possible death we can provide,” Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews told reporters Tuesday, before heading into a cabinet meeting. “I watched the video. It is an extremely powerful video and it puts a human face on the issue.”
Dr. Low, 68, who died on Sept. 18, seven months after he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, was the infectious disease expert who brought an authoritative voice and a calming presence to Toronto during the SARS crisis a decade ago. He wasn’t afraid to die, he said in the video, but he feared a protracted and painful death. In the end, although he was paralyzed and unable to speak, hear or see, he died without pain and in the arms of his wife, Maureen Taylor, a former journalist and an accredited physician assistant. He had the best palliative care possible, Ms. Taylor said in an interview, but he still didn’t have the death he wanted.
“Why make people suffer for no reason when there is an alternative?” Dr. Low asked in the video, which was filmed only days before he died. After describing his deteriorating condition, he issued a challenge to doctors who oppose assisted suicide: “I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours.”
The assisted-suicide debate is surging in other parts of the country. Last year, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the Criminal Code prohibition against assisted suicide is discriminatory; in June, the Parti Québécois government did an end run around federal jurisdiction by arguing that end-of-life is a health-care issue, not a criminal matter, in tabling the most radical right-to-die legislation in North America. Bill 52, which, if passed, will allow doctors to perform euthanasia in specific and narrow conditions, is at the committee stage, with hearings scheduled into October.
Sidestepping what other provinces are doing, Ms. Matthews insisted that Ontario’s focus is on improving end-of-life care in hospices and palliative care. “We’re making a lot of progress provincially, but we still can do better when it comes to providing appropriate palliative care for people,” she conceded. “That’s really our focus right now.” She also urged individuals to “talk to their loved ones” about their end-of-life care and to put their “advanced care plan in place, so that their wishes are known to their family members, if they’re not actually able to express those wishes themselves.”
While she admits that assisted suicide is a pressing issue, she believes the debate needs to happen in the community rather than around the cabinet table. “There are strong opinions on this,” she said. “I think it’s a conversation we need to have, but at this point, my focus is absolutely on improving end-of-life care.”
Declining to give her personal opinion on assisted suicide as an end-of-life option, Ms. Matthews did say she would “be surprised” if the topic didn’t come up, at least informally, around lunch or dinner tables at a meeting of federal and provincial health ministers next week. Meanwhile, she is holding her tongue.