Euthanasia In Canada

There is considerable debate today, both among the public
and the politicians, about euthanasia. While the government is
hesitatant to venture into morals and ethics, it appears that
euthanasia is gaining more press coverage, in light of the Sue
Rodriguez and Robert Latimer cases. Indeed, the issue is
difficult to resolve, and despite few advances, the government
has enacted penalties in the Criminal Code to punish assisted
suicide. Without reservation, euthanasia is illegal in Canada. An
increasing number of people are turning to doctor-assisted
suicide. As a result of a more liberal political arena, more
people are agreeing that some form of euthanasia must be
acceptable in specific circumstances. Politicians, and the
courts, claim that the country is not yet ready for such a
climate. The characterization of pro-euthanasia advocates by
their counterparts as selfish, taking the easy way out,
diserespectful of life, and challenging human dignity is
misconstrued. Pro-euthanasia groups advocate self-dignity,
personal choice, economic well-being, happiness, family support,
and individual rights.

The word euthanasia simply means good death, but has come to
mean causing death with intent, whether by doing something
(commission), or by omitting something(omission). Euphemisms of
the pro-euthanasia movement, include “right to die”, and “death
with dignity”. The term “passive euthanasia” is often applied to
the withdrawal of useless treatment that is onlyprolonging the
dying of a person. This needs to be differentiated from
withdrawing of something that is actually keeping them alive, the
withdrawl of which actually causes their death. It has been
pointed out that the pro-life lobby will be split and discredited
if there is an insistence by some that all technological means
must be used whenever possible to prolong life. No ethical doctor
insists on the use of burdensome, ineffective of futile measure,
commonly called ‘disproportionate’, when refused by the patient
or family. Doctors must necessarily in all patients discontinue
curative or therapeutic efforts at the time when death is
imminent and inevitable. Patients may request all measures to be
attempted if they desire but it cannot be demanded that life
always be prolonged as much as possible, without fuelling the
“right to die” movement.

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Allowing death to occur when the patient specifically
refuses further therapy is to acknowledge the natural limit of
autonomy. This does not extend to refusal of basic care and does
not mean the withdrawal of comfort measures. In 1991, the BC
Royal Commission concluded that “the person who is dying should
have the right to determine the form and time of death…There is
a right to commit suicide, and a physician should be allowed to
assist a person who chooses to exercise that right.” The Right to
Die Society in Canada, based in Victoria,
“Affirms the right of any mature individual who is
chroniclally or terminally ill to choose the time, place,and
means of his or her death. Suicide and euthanasia are a
legitimate response to the declining quality of life which many
individuals experience as they growq older, or whicfh they
suffer as a result of accidents or congentialdisabilities.”
This society actively lobbies politically for active euthanasia,
and provides counselling to every member who wishes to know about
assistance-in-dying. Similarly, the Canadian Medical Association
has run a series of articles on euthanasia. Eike Kluge, the
former CMA ethicist, is outspokenly pro-euthanasia. A recent
article published as a discussion article stated, “What a strange
world we live in, that we are kinder to our animals than we are
to human beings.” His colleague, Ethics Committee Chairman, Dr.

Arthur Parsons, asked “Who is going to get into the lifeboat? Is
it better to keep a severely retarded person alive, or spend your
tight resources on bypass surgery for a father of four?” This
brings up two important issues, the first, that euthanasia is
still used for animals, despite being called “putting to sleep”,
and secondly, the issue of money and the costliness of keeping a
person alive. Research shows that the most expensive term of care
for a patient is the final six months prior to their deaths. The
financial burden for a seemingly hopeless case is unbearable, not
just for the family, but for the patient as well. The patient, in
their last few days, should not have to worry about being a
financial burden, but the truth is, healthcare is expensive. As
Dr. Parsons argued, it may be better to supply those crucial
healthcare dollars to the father of four who requires surgery
because the chances of success are phenomenally better than the
comatose or terminally ill patient.

Current euthanasia advocates have erealized that active
euthanasia is too difficult to push through Parliament. They have
elected to go through assisted suicide which opens the door to
active euthanasia. Svend Robinson has proposed Bill C385 which
would amend the Criminal Code to allow doctors to assist in the
suicide of a patient who is terminal and requests this. In 1972,
suicide was decriminalized in Canada, keeping with the
understanding that suicide is not a rational act and these people
need help, not incarceration if the suicide attempt was
unsuccessful. The BC Commission into health care costs stated
that suicide is a right and that physicians should be empowered
to assist patients who choose to exercise that right. As it
stands now, Section 241 of the Criminal Code states that it is
illegal to counsel or assist someone to commit suicide. Section
14 presently reads “no person is entitled to consent to have
death inflicted on him”. These laws exist to protect the
vulnerable, and people open to coercion. It also recognizes that
suicidee is not a rational act, being an act of desperation and
depression out of hopelessness and helplessness. Because
something is not illegal does not make it a right. In other
words, your right to suicide is my obligation to assist your
suicide. This obligation clearly does not exist as Justice Melvin
found in the Sue Rodriguez case.

Sue Rodriguez, a 42 year old woman who has Amyotrophic
Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease,
appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the
section of the Criminal Code that makes aiding suicide illegal. A
graphic article published in The Globe and Mail, September 1992,
written by John Hofsess, the director of the right to Die
Society, describes her plight with this progressively paralysing
disease as “condemned to die”. Her future is described as a
“helpless, drooling, physically atrophied captive of this
disease, dependent on other people and machines for an ever
attenuated form of mere biological exsistence”. Her lawyers
argued that Section 241 of the Criminal Code, which makes it an
offence to assist aqnyone to commit suicide, violates Section 7
of the Charter of Rights, which guaratntees liberty and security
of the person. The Justices stressed the significant difference
between palliative care nad physician-assisted suicide, saying
Rodriguez failed to show her right to fundamental justice is
infringed by the existing criminal law. University of Manitoba
law professor Barney Sneiderman says charges are rarely laid
because the Crown recognizes that juries generally sympathize
with doctors who end the agony of dying patients. Some doctors
fear that even providing a patient with the means to commit
suicide, for example, prescribing enough pills that might be
hoarded and used for an overdose, would constitute aiding or
abetting the action of euthanasia. But Sneiderman argues that the
courts would likely requrie prosectors to prove intent. A doctor
might suspect a patient was harding pills, but because the ipills
were not prescribed for thepurpose of aiding a suicide, the
doctor would probably have a good defence. For illustration,
Sneiderman says an Edmonton doctor was charged under Section 217,
saying a person has a legal duty to perform an act if not doing
it would endanger life, and Section 219, which defines criminal
negligence and includes both acts and omissions that wou
Justices Proudfoot and Hollinrake, both agreed with Justice
McEarchern, the sole dissenter, that the legality of physician-
assisted suicide is a matter for Parliament to decide.

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