Thursday, 19 July 2012

Changes to Laws in Canada Regarding Physician-Assisted Suicide

So, I missed a major Canadian story in June, about changes in the laws regarding physician-assisted suicide. I apologize.  What can I say? I watch too much American news!

The laws regarding physician-assisted suicide in Canada got a major shake-up in June. The British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that doctors be exempt from criminal charges if they assist a person who is terminally ill and who has requested to die to commit suicide.  The federal government will be appealing the ruling, as it partially lifts the ban on physician-lifted suicide.

The BC Supreme Court then immediately made an exemption to the new ruling for Gloria Taylor, one of parties who sought the ruling. Taylor and her doctor believe that the ban on physician-assisted suicide is unconstitutional in that prevents people who don't have the means or ability to do so from taking their own lives if they so choose.  The BC Supreme Court exempted her from the new ruling from a year in order to give the federal government a chance to rewrite the physician-assisted suicide laws, but advocates still find the move confusing (as do I).

But, putting that confusion aside for a moment to consider how I feel about the ruling in general...I think that the federal government is right to appeal. This is nothing to be jumped into.

On Suicide

Emotional pain has made me suicidal at several points in my life. I've never been to the point where I've had a plan or a date in mind, but there have definitely been times when it's seemed like a good alternative to dealing with whatever I've been dealing with. I've not felt like that for a long time now, which is something for which I'm really grateful.

I don't want to deprive anyone of the liberty to do what they want with their own body, but I'm not pro-suicide by any means. I once called the police on a friend in another province who left something that sounded like a suicide note in her LiveJournal. I didn't have any contact information for her family or friends, I felt like time was critical, so I used the resources that I had available to me. I did this not because I wanted to violate her right to kill herself if she chose to, but because I was scared that in her mental state (which had been unstable for several weeks) she didn't understand the consequences of her actions.

Which is my objection to the ruling in general: Even though it applies only to people with terminal illness, I'd want to be sure that there's the medical infrastructure in place to ensure that people requesting physician-assisted suicide understand exactly what they're requesting and that there isn't a concurrent diagnosis like depression influencing the request. I think that countries that allow physician-assisted suicide currently screen for these things.

If this concern were properly addressed, I don't think that I'd have a problem with this ruling. But, looking at the ruling from a disability standpoint, I think it's very problematic.

Permitting Physician-Assisted Suicide - Proceed with Extreme Caution, for the Sake of People with Disabilities

I'm uncomfortable living in a society where physician-assisted suicide is legal and the following attitudes toward people with disabilities are still so widespread:

  • We're a drain on public resources

  • We make a small contribution to society, if any

  • We're ultimately defined by what we can't do

  • Some of us are so disabled that we shouldn't be allowed to live, let alone participate in the community

  • It's okay for other people to make decisions about whether or not we live or die

The ruling talks about terminal illness and the person with the illness making the request to die. But there are plenty of people out there who look at disability as an illness, and the fact that severe disability often does not get any less severe as a terminal condition. And there are plenty of people willing to by-pass a communication process with a person with a severe disability if that process doesn't serve them.

Look at Annette Corriveau, who has been fighting for the right to end the lives of her two adult children with severe disabilities. who cannot verbally communicate their wishes. She assumes that they want to die, because she would want to die if she had their disabilities. Is this ruling a "slippery slope" for the Annette Coriveaus of the world? Or the doctors who don't believe that infants with Down's Syndrome should be kept alive using extraordinary measures?

Sadly, one of the things that makes people with disabilities vulnerable in society in general is the tendency to view them using the "medical model" - disability is a tragedy, and people with disabilities need to be cured. For people that look at disability using the medical model (and they're not necessarily just people in the medical profession), medical science's inability to cure people with disabilities and have them lead what they consider "fulfilling lives" as "productive members of society" is extremely problematic. My concern about lifting the ban on physician-assisted suicide when the model model of disability is so much a part of our worldview is that people who can't speak up for themselves, like Annette Corriveau's children, may start to find themselves in danger.

Other countries have made physician-assisted suicide work. But, in order to protect our most vulnerable, we'd have to be very, very careful about implementing it in Canada.

More on this story:

More on Annette Corriveau:

1 comment:

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