May 30, 2018 3:15 pm
Updated: May 31, 2018 8:45 am

Fighting to die: is medically assisted death criteria too vague?

WATCH ABOVE: David Dunn says the government stood in the way of his wife dying a compassionate, dignified death. Meaghan Craig explores if the criteria for medically assisted death is too vague.


David Dunn says the government stood in the way of his wife dying a compassionate, dignified death after Cecilia Bernadette Chmura of Saskatoon was denied the option of legally ending her life with the help of a doctor.

The two were soulmates and fell in love when they were just teenagers, reconnecting a little later in life, making it that much harder when Dunn said his wife decided life was no longer worth living.

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READ MORE: Health Canada says more than 2,000 medically assisted deaths since legalization

For more than two decades, she was in constant pain which Dunn said became increasingly unbearable for her in the last 10 years.

She had fibromyalgia and chronic pain, leaving the couples’ bedroom some days for only 20 minutes before slipping back into bed. That’s when Dunn said she decided she had enough and that life was no longer worth living.

“She was just a caring individual that loved life and people and things – until it just became too unbearable,” Dunn said.

WATCH BELOW: Medically assisted death fails Saskatoon family

Cecilia applied to have a medically assisted death but was denied.

She meet the criteria as outlined by the government:

  • be eligible for health services funded by the federal government, or a province or territory:
    • generally, visitors to Canada are not eligible for medical assistance in dying.
  • be at least 18 years old and mentally competent. This means being capable of making health care decisions for yourself.
  • have a grievous and irremediable medical condition.
  • make a voluntary request for medical assistance in dying that is not the result of outside pressure or influence.
  • give informed consent to receive medical assistance in dying.

Whoever assessed Cecilia, however, felt her death wasn’t reasonably foreseeable and therefore was unable to grant her an assisted death.

“It needs to be black and white, whether for good or for bad but it’s so vague,” Dunn said.

Cecilia still died but with much more unpredictability. On the afternoon of Jan. 18 she overdosed and slipped away in David’s arms .

According to the Bryan Salte, associate registrar and legal counsel at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, a physician or nurse practitioner must make sure a person is eligible to receive medical assistance in dying according to all of the listed criteria.

A second physician or nurse practitioner must also provide a written opinion confirming a person’s eligibility and it’s not uncommon for a completely separate health care team to provide their services in the actual administration of the deadly drugs.

Approximately one per cent of all deaths in Saskatchewan in the first six months of 2017 were medically assisted deaths.

“I don’t think the criticism should actually be that (the criteria’s) vague because I don’t think it’s particularly vague – the real criticism of some is it’s inappropriate.”

WATCH BELOW: Bryan Salte from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan says the criteria surrounding medically assisted death is not particularly vague.

Salte says on one hand there are Canadians that think the guidelines are too tight whereas others don’t think it should be allowed entirely.

“There’s an old phrase that hard cases make bad law and there are always going to be concerns about individual circumstances and whether it was right in individual circumstances.”

READ MORE: First year of medically assisted dying in Saskatchewan

Having health care professionals assess individuals and administer drugs or prescribe drugs to ensure they die is relatively new in this country after becoming legal in June 2016.

“It’s not a criminal offence for a physician to do this and it’s not criminal offence for someone to help a physician to do this,” Salte said.

It is cases like Cecilia’s, or even Canadians who have starved themselves to ensure their death is foreseeable, that experts say the federal government will want to examine very carefully to see if there can be less anguish associated with ending a person’s suffering.

“Like any difficult case there’s going to be some disorders which don’t qualify for that,”said Brian Pfefferle, a criminal defence lawyer in Saskatoon.

“But I think a lot of people would say that’s exactly the type of disorder that requires a remedy for someone die with dignity.”

WATCH BELOW: Saskatoon criminal defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle says it is a delicate balance creating guidelines for medically assisted death.

It’s a delicate balance, said Pfefferle, in creating guidelines for medically assisted deaths – how do you aiding someone in ending their incurable, intolerable pain through death while still protecting the vulnerable.

“One would think that physicians are in the best position to assess things in an objective fashion,” Pfefferle added.

“Saddling them with that duty though is I’m sure if you spoke to many physicians they’d find that a very difficult task and one that would cause them to have a more difficult job than they already have.”

*Global News asked Health Canada numerous times for an on-camera interview but requests were declined. Part three of this series will air May 31 and will look at why David Dunn was taken into police custody after phoning 911.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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