Sunday, February 08, 2015

We own ourselves at last

Last Friday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that reversed a 1993 decision upholding the ban on doctor-assisted suicide... an unfortunate name some would like to see amended to "doctor-assisted dying". In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled 9-0 that the current law criminalizing the practice represented a threefold unconstitutional violation of the life, the liberty, and the security of the person provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The move is strongly opposed by the Conservative federal government of the day, but polls suggest that over 2/3 of Canadians support the measure, and they represent a majority in every region of the country, even the deeply conservative Prairie provinces. It is within the power of the federal government to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter and breathe life back into the law on a five-year renewable basis... but that would be, of course, merely delaying the inevitable, and in the faces of the wishes of the Canadian people. No federal government has ever evoked the notwithstanding clause to overrule the Supreme Court, and it's highly unlikely that will happen here, under the circumstances. The Court has grandfathered in the existing law for one year in order to enable Parliament to amend the legislation to bring it into harmony with the Constitution, and for the legislatures of the provinces, who have to administer health care, to formulate policies and safeguards.

The overturn of the law was not absolute. The Court set stringent limits on the practice. One, a person can only be assisted in ending his or her life by a physician, not simply by a family member or friend. Two, no physician shall be required to aid a person to end his or her life in violation of that doctor's personal principles. Three, the person in question must be terminally, irremediably ill. Four, that person must be competent to make the request.

In 1993, in the Sue Rodriguez case, the Court ruled 5-4 against doctor-assisted dying. At that time, no country in the world allowed the practice. There were real concerns about abuses. Since that time, a number of countries, mostly in Western Europe, and a handful of US states, have created frameworks that show the way, and at last, Canada is ready to join this compassionate company. In recent years, I've faced the hard responsibility of having to end the lives of two of my cats when the quality of their lives was exhausted and there was nothing left for them but being wrung out by their own suffering until they died tormented and exhausted. The law permitted me to spare them that... something I truly believe they would have chosen for themselves, were they but able. Now it permits me, and every Canadian, the same dignity. Our lives are our own. Who else can possibly speak for us, but we ourselves?

Each of us, one day, must die. For some of us, that process is attended with debilitation, humiliation, and pointless, mounting suffering. At last, our country has grown up, faced facts, and conceded the right for each of us to decide, individually by his or her own standards, when the scales of life have tipped from a life worth living to torment endured, and to say "enough." What freedom could be more fundamental than that?

Here Canadians express their views on both sides of the matter. Strong cases all around, but I insist that my right to decide for myself cannot, should not, and must not be dictated by the choice someone else would make... lest they be bound by mine.

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