Dear Lucy

The Right to Die

    When we see an animal that is suffering, it is human nature to want to put the creature “out of its misery”, as we like to call it, but when humans are suffering, it’s a different story. We talk about palliative care; things like improving their quality of life, managing pain and providing positive counseling. We value human life highly and protect it at all cost; including the cost of human dignity, some say. It’s been drilled into us that life is a wonderful gift not to be squandered.
    However, in a recent Forum poll published by the National Post, this tide is turning. In Canada, according to pollsters, two-thirds of the population is in favor of legally obtained, physician-assisted suicide (and who doesn’t believe pollsters? Oh, wait.) 
    According to Forum, it matters little how they slice and dice the population. With few exceptions, the subsets examined are clearly behind euthanasia. Whether looking at people’s age, gender, level of education, amount of household income, political affiliation or religious background, it was rare to see any group not at least above 50% in favor. The only two exceptions identified were non-European immigrants at 44% and Evangelical Christians at a meager 22%
    This appears to be a clear-cut example of the government thwarting the will of the majority. Governments are usually loath to ignore the will of the masses unless there are good reasons for it. What then, one might ask, is the rationale that stops our government from introducing laws allowing physician-assisted suicide, when the vast majority are clearly on-side with it?
    Probably the greatest fear the government has with regard to allowing people to choose their date of death is the dreaded “slippery slope”. The fear is that allowing doctors to legally end the life of someone who is gravely ill and in constant pain and anguish will be the “thin edge of the wedge” that will lead to misuse in the future. 
    Another concern for some, particularly the handicapped community, is the criteria to allow for euthanasia will broaden more and more, until people are being offed due to lousy income prospects, having a very bad day or a particularly nasty hang nail. People with physical challenges are worried one day people like them will be culled from the herd by the government looking to save health care dollars.
    There are other fears, as well. There are realistic concerns that not every family of an elderly relative has the family member’s best interest at heart. Children in a hurry to get their parent’s wealth may exaggerate descriptions of their “loved one’s” issues in order to hasten their inheritance. It’s a realistic fear. Given the rate of people incarcerating their aged parents in care facilities, rather than allowing them the dignity of living among family, is epidemic in North America. No one has time or patience for old people. We prefer the elderly to be out of sight and mind. The elderly are many things but they are not a source of convenience and our society is all about not being inconvenienced by anything.
    Another compelling reason for the government’s leeriness of this file is purely for practical reasons. Trying to codify the situations where it would be appropriate to hasten a citizen’s demise would be most difficult. Bear in mind, this is a government that can’t even bring itself to create an abortion law. Any abortion law! If they can’t agree on when we can identify the point in the womb where life begins, how can they possibly agree on when life should end?
    Where should they draw the line and how can we prevent future governments from moving it? How sick should someone be before checking out Amazon for a nice ice floe? How can we quantify misery to save doctors from lawsuits? These are all extremely difficult questions to answer and we all know how much governments love to answer difficult questions. They would much rather ignore them.
    There are examples for us to look at, of nations that have made the decision to allow doctor-assisted suicide. Sweden, for example, has a small assisted-suicide international tourism business going, although the flights are all one-way and there is little souvenir shopping or sight-seeing happening as a result. Still, if you feel you qualify to be killed by a caring health practitioner, anyone in the world can apply. If you fit their criteria, they’re most willing to help you throw off that pesky mortal coil.
    The Swedish example is not without its detractors, however. Their mortality statistics indicate assisted suicide is a leading cause of death in that nation. Others claim this is an erroneous statistic. Euthanasia supporters assert the figures don’t reflect that many opting for doctor-aided death would have ended up taking their own lives, anyway, if a physician-aided demise was not available and perhaps not recorded as suicide. They maintain the rate of suicide is therefore unchanged but that the deaths are more humane.
    Palliative care professionals, on the other hand, say euthanasia is not necessary. They have treatments for dealing with those in agony. They have procedures to manage the depression for those facing impending death. They feel they can provide a dignified end of life model that supports the concept that life is indeed precious and it’s not appropriate for any human to hasten their own demise. Right to death supporters claim this view is misguided or, worse, is to protect the palliative care industry.
    Whatever your feelings on euthanasia, be prepared for the issue to claim much editorial ink going forward. With Quebec’s government having opened this can of worms, the conversation in this country has begun in earnest. The only sure thing is that given the speed the government deals with other sticky issues, the debate won’t go away any time soon.


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