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.