TORONTO, Canada — A woman from British Columbia who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease has reignited the emotional and divisive debate on the right-to-die.
At 63, Gloria Taylor’s muscles are atrophying. She can barely walk, comb her hair or brush her teeth. Her condition — medically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — is fatal. It usually ends in paralysis and suffocation.
Last week, Taylor went to court for the right to have a doctor help her die.
“Gloria wants to be able to obtain physician-assisted dying services in Canada should she resolve to end her suffering and die with dignity,” says a civil claim, filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia on behalf of Taylor and four other plaintiffs. “She wants the legal right to die peacefully, at the time of her own choosing, in the embrace of her family and friends.”
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Assisted suicide and euthanasia are both illegal in Canada. Taylor, a part-time property manager, says this infringes upon her constitutional right to exercise control over her body, and to live and die in a dignified way.
In the Western world, assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia is legal in several jurisdictions, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the US states of Oregon, Washington and Montana. In the US, the issue was highlighted by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was jailed for eight years in 1999 after helping a terminally ill person die.
An example of assisted suicide is when a patient kills himself with drugs provided by a physician. Euthanasia would instead see someone other than the patient ending his life, like a doctor providing a lethal injection. Under Canada’s criminal code, advising or helping someone to commit suicide carries a maximum prison term of 14 years.
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Emotions run deep on both sides of the issue.
In July, a Toronto woman went to court to prevent two doctors from taking her husband, who is in a permanent vegetative state, off life support without her consent. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in her favor.
When Taylor’s court case began, two dozen protesters hung effigies representing people, including the elderly and the disabled, they said would be victimized if Canada’s laws were struck down. And leading politicians from all major federal parties, including Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, broadcast their opposition to assisted suicide, no matter what the circumstances.
But in a society where the demographically powerful baby-boom generation is aging, the debate refuses to go away. An Angus Reid opinion poll in December 2010 found that 63 percent of Canadians surveyed supported euthanasia.
The issue gained national prominence in 1992, when a woman from British Columbia named Sue Rodriguez made a video statement to members of Parliament. “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” said Rodriguez, 42, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
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A year later, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Rodriguez’s attempt to change the law in a split, 5-4 decision. She nonetheless committed suicide in 1994 with the help of a doctor whose identity remains unknown.
In 1993, a Saskatchewan farmer named Robert Latimer made national headlines when he admitted to killing his severely disabled 12-year-old daughter, Tracy. He described it as a mercy killing, saying she was crippled from birth by cerebral palsy and was in extreme pain. He was convicted of second-degree murder, and was granted parole in 2008.
That year, a jury acquitted a Quebecois man named Stephan Dufour, even though he admitted to helping his uncle hang himself. He described it as an act of compassion, adding that his uncle, who had polio and ate through a straw, begged him to do it. It was the first assisted suicide case to be tried before a jury, and the jury thumbed its nose at the law.
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Polls indicate that in the French-speaking province of Quebec, 78 percent of people support euthanasia. A survey of Quebec specialist physicians in 2009 found 75 percent supported euthanasia, and 81 percent said they had seen it practiced in Quebec, usually by doctors suspending medical treatment and giving sedatives. In response, the provincial government struck the Select Committee on Dying with Dignity, which has been hearing testimony on the issue for two years and is due to make recommendations this fall.
The pressure for change mounted last week when an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada, made up of leading scholars and scientists, came out firmly in favor of doctors helping competent adults end their lives — even if the patient is not terminally ill. They said it would require the second opinion of another physician, and a cooling-off period to make sure the decision is voluntary.
The panel, which also criticizes the lack of good palliative care in Canada, argues that in countries and states where euthanasia is legal, it has not resulted in a “slippery slope” of deaths without the consent of patients.
But federal government lawyer Donnaree Nygard dismissed that kind of argument. She told the judge in Taylor’s court case that changing the law would put the elderly, the depressed and the disabled at risk. Some elderly, she warned, might choose assisted suicide simply because “they feel they are a burden to their families and society.”
Outside the courtroom, Dr. Will Johnston, a spokesman for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada, argued that there is no requirement for a witness to be present at an assisted death in Oregon.
“We have no idea how many of the deaths in Oregon are truly voluntary. People change their mind all the time,” he was quoted as saying.
The last time parliament dealt with the matter was in April 2010, when politicians overwhelmingly rejected a bill — by a vote of 228 to 59 — to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.
But Canadian politics are marked by examples of public opinion and legal rulings forcing the hand of politicians, most spectacularly in the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage.
Gloria Taylor hopes the same will happen, in her lifetime, for the right-to-die.