Assisted suicide is about a choice

Federal justice minister Rob Nicholson has indicated his government will appeal the judgment of the B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynne Smith.

As expected, Gloria Taylor will soon be deprived of her newfound freedom to decide how and when she wishes to die.

Federal minister of justice Rob Nicholson has indicated his government will appeal the judgment of the B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynne Smith. The Justice had authorized Taylor to avail herself of an assisted suicide under very strict conditions and, at the same time, charged Parliament to amend the existing law.

Currently, it forbids assisted suicide, and Justice Smith finds that unconstitutional.

The appeal has not yet been filed, and until such time, Justice Smith’s judgment stands.

The moment the B.C. Court of Appeal agrees to hear the appeal, Mrs. Taylor will no longer be able to end her life with the assistance of another person.

Before I go any further, it would be helpful to describe the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia. Many people think these two words mean the same thing; far from it.

We euthanize – kill – sick dogs, horses cats and other animals when they are beyond help, too old or when we decide they are a nuisance or dangerous, as we all too often do with bears and cougars.

Most of the time, people with professional training do the killing and do this in a humane way.

We then call it euthanizing, presumably to make us feel a little less guilty for killing an animal that had no choice in the matter

I have the impression this feeling of guilt is virtually absent among the great majority of people eating beef, chicken, and pork. They do not give it much thought as to how and what happened to the millions of animals before they appear on their plates.

Let us not kid ourselves, they were slaughtered – killed – and we do not even dream of saying they were euthanized.

Assisted suicide is a different matter, because here the person makes a choice to end his or her life.

The will to live is very strong among all living creatures. With the exception of the two-legged homo sapiens, no other species engages in conscious suicidal behaviour.

As a family physician, I have had ample opportunity to intervene when someone was at their wits end and considered ending it all.

Diagnosing and treating profound depression is often very gratifying for both the doctor and the patient.

To assist a person to step back from the brink and getting on with life, dealing with the demons that drove him or her to seriously considering or even trying but failing to commit suicide is professionally fulfilling.

Not everyone has the mental capacity or fortitude to deal constructively with devastating events in one’s life.

Mental illness, sudden death of a loved one, financial ruin, a failed marriage all can trigger profound despondency to the point where life does appear to be meaningless and the only option to escape from it all is death.

Some write a note, others leave their family and friends just wondering what they could have done to prevent the self-inflicted death. But when all is said and done, their suicide was not illegal.

In the case of people with ALS, such as Mrs. Taylor and many others who suffer from a terminal incurable disease, it takes a lot of courage and wisdom to face and accept the inevitable. Many let nature take its course, and with competent palliative care, they can die peacefully when the time comes.

But there are some who are terminally ill, but mentally clear and competent people and they want to have a say in how and when they die.

In some cases, even the best doctors cannot  relieve their terrible suffering, and it is physically impossible for these tormented people to act themselves when they wish to die. They would need the assistance of someone to facilitate their departure, either with providing the patient with the means to self-administer or to ask someone to do what needs to be done to fulfill their last wish.

Justice Smith has charged our politicians to rewrite the laws so that in these exceptional cases their constitutional right to self-determination is upheld and those wiling to assist are not going to be charged and sent to jail.

By appealing once again, our weak-kneed politicians want the courts to rewrite the law instead of accepting the responsibility themselves.

The animals have no choice in the matter. I would hope it will never come to pass that we start to euthanize people the way we do with animals.


Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.

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