Other shows and the newspapers have touched on the recent introduction of Bill C-384 An Act to amend the Criminal Code (Right to die with dignity) but what I would like to do is to take us through the bill, clause by clause and discuss the arguments against the bill and those in favour.
And the best place to start with most any subject is defining terms. What is euthanasia? What is assisted suicide? And later, what does it mean when we say we have a Right to Life?
Euthanasia is from the Greek meaning “good death”; Eu meaning good and Thanatos meaning death. Today we take this to mean dying without pain or dying with dignity.
Euthanasia has been used frequently to refer to way we “put down” animals. We euthanize them. Human euthanasia can be broken down into two areas; Voluntary, Consensual Euthanasia and Involuntary or Non-Consensual Euthanasia. We need to clarify that right from the start Bill C-384 refers only to consensual euthanasia.
Regardless of the whether it is consensual or not there are three types of means to euthanize somebody…Passive, Non-Active or Active.
PASSIVE euthanasia is practiced every day by many ill people. It is simply not treating an illness and allowing the illness to take its natural course. For example, a cancer patient may refuse chemo-therapy.
NON-ACTIVE euthanasia is withdrawing treatment or life support. Pulling the plug in other words.
ACTIVE euthanasia is actually the use of some substance or another to kill the person. An example would be a Dr. Jack Kevorkian style machine which injects drugs into the body to terminate the life of the patient, or increasing the dosage of Morphine to the point of death.
If any of these methods are performed by the ill person himself it would be called suicide. But if the patient is incapable of pulling the plug or increasing their morphine dosage themselves and they actually require help then we are into the area of assisted suicide.
As it stand now the criminal code of Canada outlaws assisted suicide. I will quote you section 14 of the Criminal Code entitled “Consent to Death”.
“No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him, and such consent does not affect the criminal responsibility of any person by whom death may be inflicted on the person by whom consent is given.”
In other words even if you consent it is not considered legal and anyone who assists in your suicide may be held responsible for culpable homicide.
Section 241 of the Criminal Code is titled “Suicide” and reads…
“Everyone who a) counsels a person to commit suicide or, b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.”
This is where Bill C-384 comes in. It has been introduced by Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde and has reached second reading in the House of Commons. The Bill would amend the Code to allow doctors to assist suicide and not be held criminally responsible, however nine conditions must be met first.
The first four conditions relate to the person requesting assistance to commit suicide.
1) The person must be at least 18.
2) The person either:
a. continues, after trying or expressly refusing the appropriate treatments available, to experience severe physical or mental pain without any prospect of relief, or
b. suffers from a terminal illness.
3) The person has provided a medical practitioner, while appearing to be lucid, with two written requests more than 10 days apart expressly stating the person’s free and informed consent to opt to die,
4) The person has designated in writing, with free and informed consent, before two witnesses with no personal interest in the death of the person, another person to act on his or her behalf with any medical practitioner when the person does not appear to be lucid.
The next 5 conditions refer to the medical practitioner:
1) The medical practitioner has requested and received written confirmation of the diagnosis from another medical practitioner with no personal interest in the death of the person,
2) The medical practitioner has no reasonable grounds to believe that the written requests were made under duress or while the person was not lucid,
3) The Medical practitioner has informed the person of the consequences of his or her requests and of the alternatives available to him or her,
4) The medical practitioner acts in the manner indicated by the person, it being understood that the person may, at any time, revoke the requests made.
5) The medical practitioner provides the coroner with a copy of the confirmation of the diagnoses.
Medical Practitioner means “a person duly qualified by provincial law to practice medicine.”
On the face of it I personally think that this is a reasonable Bill. But there are a number of people who object and object vehemently with it. A few of the groups voicing opposition are the aptly named “Coalition Against Assisted Suicide” a group which says it represents more than 100 faith groups. Another opponent is the “Euthanasia Prevention Coalition”, and still another is the “Council of Canadians with Disabilities”.
Let’s deal with some of the major arguments against the Bill one at a time:
1) “Terminally ill people who kill themselves risk missing future cures”.
I guess if I was to be flippant about it I could say that they are arguing that the patient who is in so much pain and distress that they want to die should hang around and endure who know how many more days, months or years or pain and torment on the off chance that someone, somewhere just might come up with a cure, not to mention the fact that most cures must pass several years of government regulatory testing before being used on humans.
A less flippant response would be that Bill C-384 does mention that the persons consent has to be free and informed. Informed would have to include the knowledge of any present or pending cure.
2) “Unscrupulous doctors might talk patients into ending their lives to disguise medical mistakes.” This argument has totally missed the many safeguards in the Bill which call for the physician to confirm the diagnosis and for the involvement of the witnesses and the coroner. This argument is really grasping at straws and is suggesting that the Bill be scrapped on the off chance that some doctor wants to hide a mistake by killing the patient. The wording of the Bill clearly would not permit this to happen and let any such doctor get away with it by virtue of the Bill.
3) “Young people may not have the judgment to decide.” The first condition of the Bill is that the person by at least 18 years old. In our society this is considered to be the age of consent. People of this age, while young, have the judgment to marry, start families, handle their own financial affairs, hold down jobs and, carry a rifle in Afghanistan.
4) Alan Ho of the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide says “life is given by God” and no one has the right “to terminate other people’s lives.” This, I think, is an underlying philosophy behind many of the arguments against assisted suicide. Religious beliefs. It offends God. According to this argument we do not have a right to our life. It belongs to God. Well all I can say is thank God we do not pass laws based on religious beliefs. We pass, laws based on individual rights. It is unlawful to steal not because it is against one of the Judaic/Christian commandments of God, it is unlawful to steal because it is a violation of the individual right to property. If someone believes that to request assistance in a suicide is a violation of their beliefs then they are not going to request such assistance. If somebody else chooses to request assistance in suicide then it surely is no-one else’s concern. This argument is simply trying to impose one’s own religious belief on another. In our secular society such imposition should not be tolerated. My body does not belong to your God.
5) “All kinds of pain can be relieved by painkillers and other medical treatments.” Not entirely true. In many cases patients get used to pain killers and they lose their efficacy. The point at which pain is relieved becoming very close to the lethal dose of the painkiller.
Also the relief of pain may not be the only reason a person wishes to commit suicide. Bill C-384 allows for people simply suffering from a terminal illness to request assistance in suicide. Perhaps they find that it is simply not just the pain that is tormenting them. It might be the confinement to a hospital bed with no prospect of ever getting out of it. It might be the burden they are placing on their loved ones. Whatever the reason, it is not for anyone else to say to that person that we don’t agree with your reasons so you can’t die. Too bad. I consider this to be a rather arrogant stance for people against the Bill to take.
6) “The bill is not restricted to Canadian citizens and could make Canada a destination for Suicide Tourists and Suicide Clinics.” I’m sorry but I have to be flippant about this one as well. SO WHAT? As long as a tourist doesn’t expect us to pay for it I think it would be a great idea to welcome foreigners here to relieve their suffering and allow them to die with dignity. It would demonstrate to the world that Canada is a free country that respects people right to their life and that we understand that also means that you can terminate your life on your own terms.
7) The Bill “directly and intentionally threatens the lives of the most vulnerable members of society. The lives of people with disabilities and chronic conditions, people who live with depression and mental illness,” This is from the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition although others have brought it up. I can only respond by saying that Bill is intended to allow assisted suicide for those who are in “severe physical pain without any prospect of relief, or suffering from a terminal illness.” In a sense this does cover people with disabilities and chronic conditions but certainly not all of them satisfy these criteria. The Bill is pretty clear that you have to be either dying or in un-relievable pain to request assisted suicide. Simply being disabled or depressed is not going to get you any doctor to help you die.
Dean Richert, Co-Chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, has said “Living without dignity and suffering are common misperceptions that able-bodied Canadians have about the lives of their fellow citizens with disabilities. Bill C-384 does nothing to protect those who find themselves socially devalued in these ways,”
A blogger who goes by the handle DJ and whose blog is called “My Thoughts On…” has put together a very cogent response to this argument.
She says…”The desire has to come from the individual…not the person’s family doctor, neighbor, friend or anyone else (unless previously and legally arranged beforehand) with an interest in their death. In fact, the advocacy statement has to be witnessed by at least two people who have no interest in that person’s death!
“How does this threaten a person’s life at any level of ability or health?” she asks. “I’m just not seeing anywhere in the Bill that says that anyone else can make this decision for a person with a disability or chronic condition and thus threaten their existence!
“As a person with a perceived disability, I would take huge offense to the ideas that I am vulnerable, unable to make my own decisions or need to be subjected to a painful, low quality of life because some do-gooders think they know what’s best for me!
“People with non-progressive disabilities may not want to end their lives prematurely and there is absolutely no threat to that here. This Bill has absolutely nothing to do with them or anyone else not wishing to end his or her life!
“People with progressive disabilities or conditions that could end up being quite painful and unbearable currently do not have the choice to end their lives and their pain because of Section 14 of the Criminal Code. That is a violation of a person’s right to make a choice about his or her own life, in my opinion. This amendment to Section 14 simply keeps that option open for them.”
Again that was from the blog “My thoughts on…” by a woman simply identified as DJ.
To continue with the arguments:
8) “The Bill would change the trust relationship between the medical practitioner and the patient.” I would think that it would be the exact opposite. The degree of trust between the patient and doctor would have to be very high to begin with for the patient to request that the doctor help him commit suicide. Would anyone ask someone they didn’t trust to perform such a task? I wouldn’t think so.
This Bill recognizes our right to our own life. It recognizes that we have the freedom to choose.
In fact it is one of the very few instances of legislation I can think of that dares to delve into that often quoted but little understood right that everyone of us has…our right to our life.
What many people often don’t realize is that a right to something also means a right to not have that thing. For example the right to free speech also means that we have a right to keep quiet, the freedom to associate also means the freedom not to, and the freedom of expression also means that we don’t have to express ourselves. Likewise our right to our life also means the right to die.
Nathanial Brandon, Ayn Rand’s one-time intellectual heir, wrote “It is in the name of the life proper to man that a rational person may be willing to die—not as treason to his life, but as the only act of loyalty possible to him.”
A life of constant pain can often be no life at all and sometimes all that is left for us is to bow out with dignity. Bill C-384 is long overdue in this country and should be supported.
Post Script – On April 21, 2010 Bill C-384 failed to reach second reading.
(Originally broadcast on Just Right October 1, 2009 (show # 122). To download the show visit http://www.justrightmedia.org)