May 28, 2013 12:00 pm
Updated: September 24, 2013 9:31 pm

Assisted suicide debate heats up in Canada

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EDMONTON – Assisted suicide has been in the spotlight recently, after a dying Winnipeg woman went to Switzerland to make use of the country’s assisted-suicide law.

Susan Griffiths – who had multiple system atrophy, a rare disease that has no cure or hope for remission – died April 25. She was 72 years old.

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, but it is against the law in Canada.

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In Canada, suicide is legal, but only if you do it yourself. Supporting what some call ‘the right to die’ comes with numerous issues with law and ethics.

A recent population survey on views on the right to hastened death found the majority of Albertans are in favour of assisted suicide. (View the full survey below).

“It was a very careful question that we asked,” explained Donna Wilson of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Nursing, and a researcher in the study. “The question was: should dying adults be able to have the ability to request and get help to end their life early? In other words, this is assisted suicide.”

“Three quarters of Albertans were in favour of assisted suicide,” she said of the findings, “very, very surprising.”

“What was interesting was virtually everyone, of all different groups; males and females, young and old, people with more education, less education – virtually everyone, more than 50 per cent were in favour of assisted suicide, having that as an option,” says Wilson.

When asked the survey question, a total of 36.8 per cent of respondents answered yes outright.

Another 40.6 per cent of respondents indicated yes, but with the qualification that assisted suicide “should only be allowed in certain cases or situations.” The remaining 22.6 per cent answered no.

Wilson, an expert in aging and end-of-life care, used data gathered in a 2010 health-care survey by the U of A’s Population Research Laboratory.

She says social and professional views – along with judicial perspectives – on assisted suicide have changed a lot over the last thirty years.

“We have this law that says you can be charged for up to 14 yrs, and yet that law now is really being challenged.”

“We’re into some really grey areas here,” she adds, “and every provincial legislative body is going to have to look at this, and now of course the federal government is assessing the situation right now.”

In 2012, Gloria Taylor became the only person ever to be granted the right to die in Canada. After considering modern equality rights laws, a BC Supreme Court judge ruled not allowing Taylor – who was dying of ALS – to seek help ending her life was unconstitutional.

“If somebody who is physically disabled, and … they’re physically unable to kill themselves, they can’t do what an able-bodied person can do. They need help to do it. So the law prohibits them, so it treats them in a different manner,” explains Sarah Burningham, a Health Law Research Associate at the University of Alberta.

“That’s where the equality rights argument comes in.”

“The law has moved on,” she adds. “There are these new considerations. And when we look at the prohibition on assisted suicide through that, it can’t be justified any longer.”

Wilson agrees that Canadian law on this issue will likely be changing very soon.

“In some ways it’s looking like it’s now only just a matter of time.”

“The BC Supreme Court actually indicated that the law, the criminal code that forbids assisted suicide, should be struck down, that in fact, it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A dying person does not always have the option of committing suicide, whereas a well person could commit suicide. The BC Supreme Court asked the federal government to review the criminal code.”

Taylor died naturally, before she could exercise her right. That landmark ruling is now under appeal.

Currently, if a Canadian wants a doctor-assisted death, they have to travel and pay for it.

That is what Susan Griffiths did.

The British documentary, “Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die,” explores how doctors help people die at the Dignitas clinic near Zurich.

Patients must show they are mentally capable of making the decision and prove that they are terminally ill with medical records. The doctor mixes a drink for the patient that contains a lethal dose of medication. The patient consumes the drink themselves, and dies in their sleep, often surrounded by loved ones.

However, the possibility of a allowing a similar service in Canada is raising a number of ethical questions.

“We need to have some protections in place to ensure that we protect vulnerable peoples, to ensure that people aren’t coerced into it, that there’s not undue influence,” says Burningham.

Several Canadian organizations have voiced opposition to government action to decriminalize assisted suicide citing potential for abuse.

“Obviously we need strict safeguards in place,” she stresses. “So we might look at other jurisdictions, which have said you need two physicians to give the diagnosis…you need time between the request and when it actually occurs… you need a psych assessment.”

In addition, there are questions about the medical community’s role.

“That’s not consistent with the physician’s role of ‘physician is a healer,’” explains Burningham. “It goes against their oath to do no harm.”

“On the other hand, physicians also have a duty not to abandon their patients.

“And so, the argument could be made as well that, by refusing to listen to the patient’s needs at this time in their life – I mean it’s a very traumatic, terrible time – that they’re abandoning their patient.”

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A Calgary family is sharing their very personal story in the hopes of getting more Canadians thinking about the issue of assisted suicide. Watch Su-Ling Goh’s report on Amy Doolittle below:

U of A study: Right to hastened death

With files from Su-Ling Goh

Follow @Emily_Mertz

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