Obituary Guide

Time to Speak Up on Physician-Assisted Dying

Brandon Sun, September 14, 2015

David McConkey

Earlier this year, a gentle wave of relief and gratitude rolled through the people of Canada. The cause of this wave? The Supreme Court, by unanimously ruling in favour of the right for a physician-assisted death for people with enduring, intolerable suffering. This measure enjoys huge popular support. But it was initiated by the court, not parliament – showing a profound disconnect between us, the people, and the politicians who represent us.

The Supreme Court decision matches public opinion. An Ipsos-Reid poll in 2014 found that 84% of Canadians were in favour of a doctor being able to help a person, terminally ill and suffering unbearably, to die. (For Canadians with disabilities, slightly more – 85% – were in favour.)

One champion of physician-assisted dying is Winnipeg Conservative MP Steven Fletcher. He has spoken out, has sponsored a private member’s bill in parliament, and has just written a book on the subject, “Master of My Fate.” 

I am not surprised by the support for physician-assisted dying. People identify with this issue intimately and strongly. Some have seen end-of-life suffering experienced by friends or relatives. Some have even known a person who had to go to Switzerland to take advantage of the program there for a doctor-assisted death.

This overwhelming support, though, has been largely unchanneled. Few people are members of an organization like Dying with Dignity Canada. Assisted dying does not fit neatly into the traditional right or left wing, and so lacks a voice within standard political parties. As well, it is a rather taboo subject that politicians of all stripes would just as soon avoid.

And traditional mainstream organizations lag behind the times. Case in point: the Brandon Ministerial Association. After the Supreme Court decision, this group sent an over-the-top letter to the editor of this paper entitled “Assisted Suicide Ruling Opens Door to Genocide.” 
The Supreme Court justices, however, are free to reflect their own – and public – opinion. The justices are not hampered by political correctness. They can take on controversial issues. And like Canadians in general, they have been changing their opinion. In 1993, the justices ruled the opposite way, in a case brought forward by Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from ALS.

By the way, of the nine current Supreme Court justices: one was appointed by Prime Minister Mulroney, one by Prime Minister Martin, and seven by Prime Minister Harper. 
The court has now thrown the issue over to Parliament. Our politicians have one year to bring in legislation to regulate this matter. They don’t have to look very far for guidance. Physician-assisted dying was recently introduced in the province of Quebec. It is already in place in the states of Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

Progress by court action has a long history in Canada. Think of advances in women’s rights in the 1920s, abortion rights in the 1980s, and gay rights more recently. A similar pattern has occurred in the U.S. From the 1950s to today, their Supreme Court has ended legalized racial discrimination and brought in abortion and gay rights.

Looking to the future, the Supreme Court may be a way we can scale back the War on Drugs. (By ruling in favour of the Insite needle exchange program, the court has already started nibbling away at this futile and destructive “war.”)

So we can thank the court for progressive and popular reform. But this is not the ideal. This is not even the way it is supposed to work!

So, there should be more direct ways that public opinion can be expressed to – and by – our government. Improvements could include proportional representation, referendums, more private member’s bills, and more freedom for MPs to vote other than the partly line. Other changes could involve using the Internet to record and relay public opinion to politicians.

And maybe we will see more politicians who will cast aside political correctness. (In this case, I hope less like Donald Trump and more like, say, Preston Manning or Elizabeth May!)

But back to Canada today. What if there was a way that we could engage in dialogue more directly with our politicians? Oh, wait, there is. It is happening now. So, even if politicians wince when hearing the words “physician-assisted death,” they pretty well have to listen and talk to us now, during an election. 

So, citizens, if you are concerned about this issue, a great opportunity to speak your mind is right now! 

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See Also:

Writing Your Own Obituary Offers Chance for Reflection

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Be Prepared: Will, Health Care Directive (Living Will), Obituary, and More

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