How the issue of euthanasia is changing both within and beyond Canadian borders
By Mercedes Deutscher, Staff Writer
A controversial issue, long-debated, has risen again: the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
A few weeks ago, the story of Brittany Maynard went viral online. Maynard, 29, learned this past January that she had Stage 2 brain cancer and was given a humbling prognosis of 10 years to live. In April, a few months after a partial craniotomy and several other procedures, she and her family were shocked when they were told that Brittany’s cancer had progressed to Stage 4. She was given six months to live. After researching all of her options, she, her newlywed husband, and her family moved from San Francisco to Oregon.
The reason? Oregon is one of five states (the others being Washington, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana) that permit physician-assisted suicide. Maynard, seeing no other options that would prevent her from dying a slow and painful death, wanted to die on her own terms. She plans on dying in her home, surrounded by family and friends, on November 1. Maynard stated to CNN, “I’ve had the medication for weeks. I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms.”
Maynard has become the new face of a growing pro-euthanasia/assisted-suicide movement, a movement that hasn’t received this much attention since the case of Dr. Jack Kevorkian in 1999. She has received praise and criticism alike. Many are commending her choice, and are using her as an example as to why assisted suicide should be legalized within the US (and internationally).
However, several groups have emerged to challenge the legalization of euthanasia. From a more religious perspective, Maynard is being condemned for taking her life into her own hands instead of letting it run its course. Other groups are placing blame on the doctor who prescribed the medication that will end her life, saying that what they are doing is murder. Other groups are challenging that the legalization of assisted suicide will allow for manipulation of the system and will allow for people to be involuntarily coerced into taking medication that will end their lives.
Maynard’s case has brought the issue of assisted suicide into international spotlight, and will undoubtedly be referred to as nations worldwide continue to discuss its legalization. Euthanasia (directly ending the life of a terminally ill and suffering patient) is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, while assisted suicide (giving a terminally ill and suffering patient the means to end their own life through medication) is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Columbia, Japan, and the aforementioned US states. Nations that are currently contemplating legalizing such acts are watching closely to see how these laws affect the public.
One of the nations currently considering legalizing assisted suicide is Canada. The plaintiffs in the 2012 BC Supreme Court case of Carter vs. Canada (consisting of Gloria Taylor, a woman suffering from ALS, and Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson, both of whom have mothers with terminal illnesses) stated that the illegality of assisted suicide is unconstitutional, denying a person’s right to life, liberty, and security of person outlined in Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court did not make a decision that would affect the province, but did allow Taylor a constitutional exemption that would allow her to pursue a physician-assisted death.
The laws prohibiting assisted suicide in Canada are now being revisited in a case involving the Supreme Court of Canada, in memory of Taylor, and Carter’s mother, who have both passed away since the 2012 case. This will be the second time that the Supreme Court of Canada is hearing a case regarding assisted suicide; the first time occurring in 1993 when Sue Rodriguez, a mother suffering from ALS, also challenged the law by calling it unconstitutional. In a 5-4 decision, the Criminal Code stance on assisted suicide was upheld.
Prime Minister Steven Harper has said, “The government of Canada at this time has no intention of reopening that debate.” Yet if the Supreme Court decides to rule in favour of assisted suicide, then the Canadian government will be expected to amend the law to allow for assisted suicide.
While the rest of Canada waits for a decision to be made, Quebec has made a decision on its own. This past June, Quebec legislation passed Bill 52, An Act Respecting End-of-Life Care. This law will come into effect in late 2015, and will allow consenting terminally ill patients who are suffering and who have no further options to save their life to access a physician-assisted suicide. While it has been challenged by anti-assisted suicide groups, the new law is expected to stay in place.
With the current Supreme Court case and Quebec’s recent change, it would be reasonable to predict that assisted suicide may become legal soon throughout all of Canada. If the United States and Canada, along with the nations where death with dignity for the terminally is already legalized, what will happen with the rest of the world regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide? It is apparent that attitudes towards this issue are changing as the world becomes increasingly secular and liberal.