This is the second week of essays in our assisted-dying series. All of the first week’s articles can be found here.
Assisted dying is a polarising issue, and everyone’s perspective has merit. Although I do not agree with all statements made in this debate, the right to assert those opinions is as important as the right to choose to die with dignity.
I agree with the distinctions made by Steven Fletcher between suicide, euthanasia and dying with dignity or assisted dying, and the following is rooted in that context.
The prevailing opinion of those opposed to assisted dying appears to be that, to be acceptable, any law must attain perfection. No other laws are held to such an exacting standard; even in death-row proceedings, proof is required only beyond a reasonable doubt. It is nearly impossible to maintain black-and-white absolutes in a world that operates in greyscale.
It is wrong to think that a law permitting assisted dying sends the message, overt or subliminal, that such action should suddenly be considered by terminal patients. Like nearly every social change, recent or otherwise, laws do not evolve in a vacuum. A law does not spark a discussion but rather a movement precipitates a law.
Fear of an undignified and painful death is nothing new. In 1993 Sue Rodriguez fought to the Supreme Court of Canada for the right to an assisted death, unsuccessfully. By 2015 societal norms had shifted enough that it reconsidered the issue and found that criminal prohibitions against an assisted death unjustly infringed upon the right to life, liberty and security of the person under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The movement in Canada to legalise assisted dying was a slow but monumental shift in prevailing social opinions; it did not merely enter the consciousness of many as a result of becoming legal.
When assisted dying became available in Canada in 2016, it offered many a legal way to end their suffering. But what of those individuals in other countries, where similar legislation has been proposed but denied? Some will undoubtedly continue to suffer. Others will be fortunate enough to have the significant resources required to travel to a permissive jurisdiction, such as Switzerland.
The regrettable reality, however, is that differences in laws between countries and continents mean assisted dying is an elitist opportunity. The impoverished and vulnerable are further marginalised, and forced into prolonged suffering or to make extreme decisions. Repeatedly we hear stories of those who have attempted suicide, at times unsuccessfully, and the repercussions for themselves and their families. It is naive to think that without assisted-dying legislation, these deaths do not occur.
Protocols and safeguards must be implemented to prevent abuses. The key elements of any assisted-dying legislation are capacity and consent. The concerns of lawmakers and doctors, among others, that dying with dignity becomes a “slippery slope” towards euthanasia fail to contemplate the integral role of consent in the process. So long as consent remains necessary, such treatment cannot be imposed upon unwilling participants. The protocols need to respect the practitioners’ freedom of conscience, too; those who do not support assisted dying should not be forced to participate in it.
The choice to control death does not minimise the sanctity of life, or pass judgment on the quality of life for those who find meaning in living. To the contrary, as many contributors have noted, having the choice makes the gift of life more precious.
Trista Carey is currently a partner at Schnell Hardy Jones, in Red Deer, Alberta
This article is part of a series of viewpoints on assisted dying. Read more here: The case for and against assisted dying