Nearly 20 years ago, 42-year-old Sue Rodriguez fought in court for the right to a physician-assisted suicide. She lost. Yet in 1994, Rodriguez received help from an anonymous doctor and ended her own life.
Rodriguez was fighting the same disease that Gloria Taylor, 65, is fighting today: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which slowly robs people of the ability to walk, speak, chew and eventually breathe. Because there’s currently no cure for it, Taylor decided to take Rodriguez’s fight back to court — and this time, she’s won. The ban on Taylor’s physician-assisted suicide was lifted for a year, giving her the chance to decide when to say her goodbyes and end her suffering. Justice Lynn Smith, who made the ruling, said the Criminal Code provisions “unjustifiably infringe the equality rights” of persons who are unable to end their lives without assistance.
Taylor’s triumph has brought the debate of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) onto people’s radars once again. Personally, I can’t believe it’s taken this long to allow someone to request PAS; I’m happy for Taylor, but wish Rodriguez had been given the same right. Those against PAS point to the Hippocratic Oath, an oath historically taken by physicians in which they swear to practice medicine ethically and honestly. The Oath that states that physicians aren’t supposed to give a lethal drug to anyone, even if asked for it. However, the Oath also made references to women not studying medicine and to doctors not performing abortions (which may be highly debated, but is legal in Canada) and not cutting open skin.
One argument that the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition makes that I do agree with is that legalizing assisted suicide could lead to people feeling pressured to seek PAS when their lives become a burden for others. I can see their argument: perhaps you have an incurable disease and your treatment is sinking your family into debt, but you still want to fight for your life. You shouldn’t feel pressured into PAS to avoid the guilt that your fight might financially burden your family.
However, can’t this argument be used for a whole host of already-legal decisions? One is always able to refuse treatment, and in the case of a terminal disease, this is pretty much suicide — albeit a longer one with more pain involved than PAS. If the pressure to seek PAS swayed people, wouldn’t they just as easily be inclined to refuse treatment? And what about a girl who becomes pregnant and is pressured by her family to get an abortion?
Just because systems are misused doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be available. If anything, this proves the need for legalization even more, since legalizing PAS would ensure that it is regulated and monitored. Suicide and PAS occur regardless of whether they’re legal or not, and just as Rodriguez found a way around the law, I’m sure others will as well.
In the case of Gloria Taylor — who will be the only person legally able to request PAS unless it becomes Canadian law — the judge made sure to outline a few regulations to make her PAS as safe as possible. Before Taylor’s PAS can take place, Taylor’s physician must agree that Taylor is terminally ill with no chance of recovery and ensure that Taylor fully understands her prognosis and treatment options. Taylor must be informed of the risks involved, be referred to a palliative care expert and told that she may change her mind. Both Taylor’s physician and a psychiatrist need to confirm that Taylor is mentally competent, and at that point Taylor will be able to carry out her PAS. Her physician will not administer the life-ending measure unless Taylor is physically incapable of carrying out the act herself.
With such stringent regulations, shouldn’t we be opting to legalize PAS? Wouldn’t that be a better alternative than having anonymous doctors assist those who may or may not be mentally competent, or who want to avoid familial inconvenience rather than suffering? If we brought PAS into the open, we could make sure it was being done for the right reasons and that people had access to care and options that they may not have been aware of.
Finally, I know that if I were in Taylor’s shoes, I would want the choice — a choice that, as she very eloquently puts it, will allow her “to approach death as she has tried to live [her] life: with dignity, independence and grace.”
We must ask, as Rodriguez and Taylor have, “Whose life is it anyway?”