In a landmark ruling, the Canadian Supreme Court has overturned the ban on doctor-assisted suicide, proclaiming that a ‘right to life’ cannot preclude the ability of competent adults who are living in incurable suffering from choosing to die. A right to life cannot be made into a duty to live.

This is a tremendous victory for those of us who are determined to end our lives in a dignified manner if we need to do so. It is not a victory for thoughtless suicide; the limits placed by the court require a careful and rational process of competent choice. When death is inevitable or can be seen as an escape from unmitigated pain, the right to choose the method and timing of dying becomes a fundamental right.

Those with strong religious views have immediately decried this measure and some have demanded that the government use the ‘notwithstanding clause‘ to pass legislation reversing the court’s decision. This is hardly surprising; these same groups routinely want to overturn people’s fundamental rights in order to impose their own peculiar ideology on others. Fortunately, in this country, they are extremely unlikely to get their way.

A more cogent criticism of the ruling comes from those organizations and individuals who represent the disabled or those suffering from mental health issues. They fear that this ruling represents a slippery slope wherein people will be forced or forcibly persuaded by family and the medical establishment to accept unwanted death. The slippery slope argument is one that is used by those who resist change of any kind. It reminds me a bit of the ‘domino theory‘ that stated that losing Vietnam was only the first step in losing the whole world to communism. I suspect it has similar merits.

I doubt that many people could be persuaded to kill themselves and even fewer doctors who would agree to help. How, in any case, do we measure unwanted death? If someone sincerely says they want to die, shouldn’t we accept that they are telling the truth? If they are not competent to know the truth, then the ruling doesn’t apply to them.

In any case, governments are unlikely to allow the matter to rest in an unrestricted and unregulated way. Everywhere assisted-suicide has been put in place, strong safeguards have also been established to protect those who are vulnerable. There is no credible evidence that this is not true.

For most of us — my friends anyway — this is viewed as a victory for ‘living well.’ None of us want to resort to a horde of pills accumulated over the years or the messy relief of a gun barrel in the mouth. Yet, many who fear the decline of Alzheimer’s or the agony of terminal cancer had been making exactly those plans. We will now be able to sleep better at night knowing that when the final sleep comes it can be approached with dignity, grace and peace.

And that’s ten minutes.


3 thoughts on “Dying

  1. Barbara Tomporowski

    Thanks for this, Hayden. I won’t pass it on through my Facebook page, since my work in the Government of Saskatchewan requires me to be circumspect about anything in the justice or political realm, but I agree with you. I saw a little bit of this issue from two different angles in summer 2013, when my father almost died. First, he had a brain aneurysm. He woke up and seemed to be recognizing us and trying to talk. When I told various staff members that, they smiled and said something comforting. It was clear they didn’t believe me and thought I was in denial.

    I found out that they had already taken my father off water and food, without our knowledge or permission.

    Fortunately, the neurosurgeon came by and my father was awake. The neurosurgeon said, “How are you feeling, John?”

    My father replied, “Doctor, I feel better.”

    That sentence changed everything in how the staff acted – they started taking us seriously, and treating my dad as if he might recover. Then, a month later, my dad had a stroke. The doctors told me I needed to come to Saskatoon right away because he might die any minute. I went, and again he didn’t seem to be as bad as they were telling me – he was waking up and trying to talk to me and my brother. Yet the doctors showed us the brain scans showing significant damage, and said that he would likely pass away. At best, if he was kept on life support, we shouldn’t expect him to regain consciousness, or smile, or talk, and he would probably be paralyzed.

    The neurosurgeon talked to us about options for hastening Dad’s death, including removing food and water. I asked her if it was legal and ethical for us to even have that conversation, and she said, “I don’t know about legal or ethical, but I can tell you that doctors and families have this conversation all the time.” Despite the test results, my father recovered again, and continues to surpass everyone’s expectations. The left side of his body is weak and we are not sure if he will walk again, but his mental abilities are okay and his personality is fine. So I experienced how medical staff might be too quick to assume the worst, based on their experience and medical tests. I also saw how doctors themselves need guidelines for how to deal with this kind of difficult situation. I don’t think that they should be in the position of facing up to 14 years in jail for helping people choose to pass away with as little pain and as much dignity as possible. (I realize that the situation I’m describing is a bit different than what the Supreme Court dealt with.) 

    While I haven’t said any of this publicly, I have told some of the executive managers in Saskatchewan Justice that I would be pleased to work on this file if Saskatchewan develops any relevant policy or is consulted on any federal legislative amendments.

    To borrow a good line from you, “that’s my ten minutes.”  🙂 – Barbara Tomporowski


    From: 10 Minutes of Words To: barbara.tomporowski@yahoo.com Sent: Saturday, February 7, 2015 8:35 AM Subject: [New post] Dying #yiv7120568341 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv7120568341 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv7120568341 a.yiv7120568341primaryactionlink:link, #yiv7120568341 a.yiv7120568341primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv7120568341 a.yiv7120568341primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv7120568341 a.yiv7120568341primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv7120568341 WordPress.com | haydentrenholm posted: “In a landmark ruling, the Canadian Supreme Court has overturned the ban on doctor-assisted suicide, proclaiming that a ‘right to life’ cannot preclude the ability of competent adults who are living in incurable suffering from choosing to die. A right to l” | |

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