Does having the right to live also give you the right to die?

This is what the Supreme Court of Canada is currently contemplating in Ottawa as it hears arguments for and against medically assisted suicide, a debate which commenced 15 October 2014. The Supreme Court will decide to either legalize assisted suicide at a Federal level, or continue the current ban, just months after Quebec has adopted its own law allowing the practice.

Physician assisted suicide is “the suicide of a patient suffering from an incurable disease, effected by the taking of lethal drugs provided by a doctor for this purpose.”[1] While similar in its aim, it differs from euthanasia in the fact that euthanasia occurs when a physician physically performs the intervention, whereas in assisted suicide, the physician provides the necessary information and means, and the patient ultimately performs the act which ends his or her life. Both are currently illegal in Canada, but both practices are very relevant to every Canadian citizen; someday, every one of us could potentially become victim to terminal illness.

The ultimate goal of assisted suicide is to allow medical patients suffering from terminal illnesses to die with dignity and without pain. Often, serious illnesses render patients bedridden and heavily dependent upon their relatives, and some individuals consider circumstances like not being able to visit the washroom aid to be very humiliating. Moreover, terminal illnesses often bring with them an overwhelming amount of pain which many patients would rather die than continue to face.

In opposition, the Government of Canada argues that decriminalizing assisted suicide would demean the value of life and put the lives of the vulnerable at risk, especially as patients could be pressured by their families into choosing death.  What is more, they say it is a slippery slope: legalizing assisted suicide for the terminally ill may lead towards the extension of assisted suicide to other vulnerable groups, such as the physically or mentally disabled, and later on, to those who feel disadvantaged due to their socioeconomic or demographic status.

However, consider the fact that suicide was decriminalised in Canada in 1972. So why is it that perfectly healthy individuals have the right to end their own lives, while those in pain and suffering who are physically incapable of doing the same thing cannot rely on the help of others?  The government tells us that we have control over our own bodies, but in reality their rule only holds true if our decisions do not “violate the rights of others,” namely by involving others in the tricky business that is death.

The debate over assisted suicide in Canada first began in 1993, when a woman named Sue Rodriguez was one of the many patients in the country who was incapable of committing suicide. She had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), making it impossible for her to physically end her own life without any outside help. Rodriguez appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, famously stating the words, “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” She made it clear that she so desperately wanted to legalize assisted suicide because she did not want her last act on Earth to be illegal, but added that even if she couldn’t obey the law in the end, at least she would die knowing she had tried her best. Unfortunately, her appeal was unsuccessful and ultimately Rodriguez sought the help of an anonymous physician and chose to die at her home in Vancouver Island on 12 April 1994.  Clearly, people have wanted assisted suicide for twenty years now, and support has only grown over time, but our country has still made no progress.

What is more, Canada has no excuse. Since Oregon, the first American state to legalize assisted suicide, first passed its Death With Dignity Act in 1997, approximately 1100 individuals in the state have obtained lethal drug prescriptions, and around 750 have chosen to use them[2].  Annual reports and statistics have shown that Oregon’s experience has been favourable . In Quebec, where the province has adopted its own right-to-die bill, it will take a few more months for the legislation to be implemented; however if Oregon’s experience is anything to judge by, Quebec should have no problem in achieving positive results as well. And more importantly, there is no reason that Canada cannot follow in its lead.

All that is required to prevent abuse of assisted suicide is for well thought-out, effective legislation to be put in place. In Oregon, for instance, only specific, well-defined categories of patients may participate. Patients must be eighteen or older, and in a mentally stable condition. They need to have been deemed to have no more than six months left to live by doctors. In addition, a physician must make sure that patients understand the decision they are about to make: the options of palliative care, pain management and living in a hospice are made available as alternatives. These stringent rules have made it very difficult for people to misuse the practice, and so the results of legalizing assisted suicide in Oregon have been very effective.

Other countries around the world have seen the benefits of assisted suicide and followed Oregon’s example by establishing similar laws to allow their citizens to die with dignity. Today, assisted suicide is legal in many other countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

So what’s the bottom line? According to our constitution, every human has equal rights; accordingly, every human has the right to choose when to die. Legalizing assisted suicide is the best way to respect the wishes of the vulnerable that are in pain and suffering. To do anything else would be to discredit their opinions and refuse these individuals the right to choose what to do with their own lives. Canada has always prided itself on its stance on equality and human rights, so why is assisted suicide still an issue? Canada, it is time to make the right decision: the decision that will respect our right to leave this world in peace, dignity, and surrounded by loved ones.

The right to live and the right to die are a choice, and one that every Canadian should have.

Illustrator: Susie Liu

Illustrator: Susie Liu




“Op-eds are opinion articles that reflect the views of the author, but not necessarily those of the Editorial Board or of The Reckoner as a whole. Please note this important distinction when reading this article.”