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Dr. Ellen Wiebe at the Willow Women's Clinic in Vancouver, March 2, 2016.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The first doctor to provide an assisted death with a Canadian court's permission says she did so because, as a family practitioner and abortion provider, she believes in personal choice involving one's body.

"You know, I've been at many deathbeds over my career," Ellen Wiebe, a Vancouver physician, told The Globe and Mail, reflecting on her experience in February helping a Calgary woman who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a paralyzing neurological condition. "The idea that for the first time ever this patient was in control was quite a wonderful experience. She was in control despite her terrible disease, all the things that she had lost."

The patient, a retired psychologist, climbed mountains during an active life, but after being stricken with ALS, obtained authorization from a Calgary judge for an assisted death. But she could not find a local doctor and had to be flown to Vancouver.

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Dr. Wiebe said she went public at that time because she wanted other doctors to come forward. As a result, she said, a loose network across Canada (although not in every province) of doctors – many of them abortion providers – has formed to provide assisted death. She and others went to Oregon and the Netherlands for training in the protocols and medical practices involved, and took a course in palliative care.

She objects to the requirement that a patient's death be "reasonably foreseeable."

"Some of the patients have terrible diseases that rob them of one function after another after another, until they find that they are suffering unbearably. But they still have some years of life left before a natural death. They would have to go into a care home in a situation that is completely unacceptable to them because they require total-body, 24-hour care."

She also objects to the government's stated wish to exclude people with mental illness who do not also have a physical condition. In fact, she says, a case is before a Canadian court in which a person suffering primarily from mental illness is seeking authorization for an assisted death.

"It's not common, but I have seen grievous and irremediable mental illness causing terrible suffering, and I am sorry that I could no longer be able to help such people."

But on the whole, she said, "I'm so glad that we live in a country that will accept medically assisted death."

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