Dr. Donald Low pleads for 'dying with dignity' in posthumous video
The late infectious disease specialist Dr. Donald Low advocated for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in the days before his death, saying in a video posted online that he wished opponents could "live in my body for 24 hours," because it would likely change their minds.
Low was diagnosed with a brain stem tumour in early February and died Sept. 18 at the age of 68.
In a video filmed eight days before his death, Low said he looked into whether he could make arrangements for an assisted death, which is illegal in Canada.
Low said he would have liked to decide when and how he was going to die, wanting to take the drug cocktail commonly used in physician-assisted death to "fall asleep" peacefully, surrounded by his family.
"In Canada it's illegal, and it will be a long time before we mature to a level where we accept dying with dignity," Low said.
"There's a lot of opposition to it, there's a lot of clinicians in opposition to dying with dignity. I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours and I think they would change that opinion."
Low, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, became well-known to Canadians and a broader global audience as a spokesperson during the SARS crisis in 2003.
In the video, Low said he had not yet had to endure serious pain or paralysis, which he expected "will come," although he was suffering from compromised vision, hearing and strength.
Low said that while he was not afraid to die, he was worried about how he would die: whether he would lose the ability to walk, eat, swallow, and if he would have to depend on his family to help him with basic daily functions.
"I'm just frustrated not being able to have control over my own life, not being able to make the decision for myself when enough is enough," Low said.
"I really envy countries like Switzerland and the Netherlands and the United States where this is possible. Why make people suffer for no reason when there's an alternative? I just don't understand it."
Low said he hoped that his death would be painless, and perhaps would come in his sleep: "I would hope that I'm able to face death, without the fear of death itself. I'm not afraid of dying. I could make that decision tomorrow. I just don't want to be a long protracted out process where I'm unable to carry out my normal bodily functions and talk with my family and enjoy the last few days of my life."
A day after filming the video, Low's health took a turn for the worse, according to his family.
His widow Maureen Taylor said her husband wasn't "enjoying life" in his final days.
"He really is trying to reach out in that interview to fellow physicians who seem to want to bury their heads in the sand on this issue, and not want anything to do with assisted dying," she told CTV Toronto.
At the end of the video, a simple message is displayed on the screen:
"He did not have the death he had hoped for, but he died in his wife's arms and he was not in pain."
In an obituary published in the Globe and Mail, the family asks that "in tribute to Don, please advocate for the legalization of assisted dying in Canada."
Wanda Morris of the organization Dying with Dignity said the physician-assisted suicide movement in Canada is growing.
"No one is asking for this for anyone else," Morris said. "They're just saying, ‘Let me make my choice,' and I think (Low) put that so beautifully."
However, advocates against physician-assisted suicide say Low's remarks shouldn't have too much of an impact on the ongoing public debate.
"We shouldn't be making public policy decisions of this importance simply based on one person's point of view," said Hugh Scher, a spokesperson for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition."
In 2012 the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the Criminal Code prohibition against assisted suicide is discriminatory. However, the decision is being appealed by the federal government.
Meanwhile, Quebec became the first jurisdiction in Canada to table right-to-die legislation in June. It has not yet become law.