Canada Chooses Compassion over Convention

Photo by leaf / 123RF

International affairs suffered quite the shock this past week as the United Kingdom confounded expert opinion by leaving the European Union, spreading panic through the global financial system. But not all is gloom and doom on the international stage, as our Canadian friends to the north have made their own policy change: allowing physician-assisted death.

According to Merrit Kennedy of NPR, the newly legalized procedure requires individuals to adhere to a fifteen-day waiting period and a number of other requirements, such as the requirement that applicants “be eligible for government-funded health care (a requirement limiting assisted suicides to Canadians and permanent residents, to prevent suicide tourism). People seeking physician-assisted death must be at least eighteen years of age, mentally competent, and, says Kennedy, “have a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability…and be in an ‘advanced state of irreversible decline,’ with enduring and intolerable suffering.”

Of course, leading the opposition to this change are religious groups that feel as though their beliefs require them to speak out. Cardinal Timothy Collins of Toronto claimed that the law is “an assault upon the sanctuary of conscience to be suffered by good individuals and institutions who seek only to heal” and around 4,700 Christian doctors in Canada are challenging the new law in court.

But humanists should be relieved to see this change in law, as it means that people living in Canada who are suffering in pain from terminal illness will finally have a way to end the chronic pain in a dignified manner, surrounded by the ones they love. This doesn’t mean that humanists don’t value life; in fact the opposite is true. But as I noted in a previous article on this topic, “while humanists recognize that we only have one life to live, we also recognize that living in unbearable pain can be a horrible existence and that relief from this pain can be the greatest gift we can give to our loved ones.”

The question now is whether the law goes far enough or is too restrictive. Should adults who suffer from no terminal illness or incurable disability and who aren’t in a state of irreversible decline be given the same opportunity to end their lives if that’s what they truly wish to do?

In a new lawsuit, the British Columbia Civil Rights Association is seeking to remove the section of the law that requires an advanced state of irreversible decline so as to allow patients in the early stages of a terminal illness or incurable disability the right to end their lives before the debilitating pain sets in. But what about those who want to end their lives but have no illness or disability? Should these people be relegated to shocking forms of suicide which can scar first responders and friends who inevitability will discover the corpses? Should those who wish to end their lives but who don’t suffer from an illness be forced to leap off bridges, jump in front of buses, poison themselves, cut themselves, shoot themselves, or use one of the other violent and unnecessary methods for ending one’s life? Should Canada and other societies recognize that adults have autonomy over their own lives, including the ability to end them, and seek to help those who wish to end their lives in that endeavor so that it is as painless and non-traumatizing as possible?

I have no doubt that the answers to these questions will vary amongst humanists, however humanists should celebrate Canada’s new death with dignity law, even if we might like to see it improved. At the very least, Canada seems to be interested in helping its citizens who face difficult end-of-life decisions, and that level of compassion is worth celebrating.