W5: Seeking an end to life and challenging the law
Published Saturday, October 15, 2011 7:04PM EDT
A lot has happened since Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, took her fight to legalize assisted suicide all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1993. She lost that legal battle by a close 5-4 decision. Four months later, an anonymous doctor discreetly helped her carry out her dying wish.
In essence, the Court ruled that no one could legally assist in another's death, despite terminal disease, intractable pain, prolonged suffering, or an expressed wish to end it. So as it stands in Canada, it is illegal to counsel, aid or abet a person to commit suicide, and anyone convicted of the offence could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
Since the Rodriguez case, several countries -- including Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, and the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon and Montana -- have legalized some form of assisted suicide.
And now, the debate has been re-ignited in British Columbia where a number of Canadians wanting an assisted death has once again put the issue front and center. Along with the support of the BC Civil Liberties Union, they have launched a court challenge to strike down the law as unconstitutional.
As CTV's W5 has found, once again, the battle lines have been drawn with one side arguing that people have right to decide their own fate, and the other side warning of a "slippery slope" where society's most vulnerable may be put at risk.
Now Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson of Langley, B.C. are trying to finish the fight that Rodriguez started by once again challenging the law against assisted suicide.
For Lee and Hollis, the fight is personal.
Last year, under a cloak of secrecy, the couple took Lee's 89-year-old mother, Kay, to a dying clinic called Dignitas in Zurich, Switzerland where she was given a cocktail of barbiturates and died. It was Kay's wish. She had been afflicted with spinal stenosis -- not a terminal illness but one that made life difficult.
Kay simply wanted to end her suffering in "dignity" -- and as she said, she did not want to end up "an ironing board in a bed" and "dying inch by inch."
Russel Ogden, a director of the Farewell Foundation, has also joined the battle to change the law. If the challenge is successful, he wants to start a clinic in BC like the one in Switzerland.
Ogden sees the court case as a question of civil rights and a matter of choice. He notes that suicide used to be a crime but now it's legal. For him, the irony is a law where helping someone do something is criminal, but if you do it yourself, it's not.
As part of his academic research, Ogden witnessed what he described as "five self-chosen deaths and in each of these the individuals were happy to go . . . they were at peace with their decision."
But there are a number of critics who warn of a "slippery slope" and point to problems in countries where assisted suicide is legal,
One of the people sounding the alarm is Dr. Jose Pereira, Medical Chief, Palliative Medicine, Bruyère Continuing Care and The Ottawa Hospital. He has worked in Switzerland and witnessed first hand what he describes as the "illusion of safeguards and controls" in assisted suicides.
In a recent study, he pointed out that in the past three decades, the Netherlands has moved from euthanizing people who are terminally ill, to include those who are chronically ill, suffering from a physical illness, and depression, and points out that the Dutch are now considering euthanasia "simply if a person is over the age of 70 and tired of living."
What also concerns Dr. Pereira is that the strict protocols in the Netherlands of explicit written consent are eroding and cases have occurred without that written consent. Moreover, he worries that many people opting for assisted suicide may be pressured to end it because they feel they are a burden to their families.
"Autonomy and choice are important values in any society, but they are not without limits. Our democratic societies have many laws that limit individual autonomy and choice so as to protect the larger community. These include, among many others, limits on excessive driving speeds and the obligation to contribute by way of personal and corporate taxes. Why then should different standards on autonomy and choice apply in the case of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide?"