Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Choosing death ought to be our right
June 15, 2007

With any luck, I’ll live long enough to see this country do something brave around making it easier for people to choose death.
I respect all sides of the issue. There are some really terrifying possibilities any time it becomes socially acceptable for one group of humans to kill another.
But let’s just start with one thing, then: That an old and failing person ought to have the right to die gracefully and painlessly, at a time of their choosing. Surely we can agree on that.
I don’t think a lot about death, but it crosses my mind from time to time. For instance, I’m currently reflecting on whether I still want to be cremated, or am starting to favour being planted au natural in some beautiful forest.
People generally don’t have much say over how they die, so I won’t indulge in any vanities about how much control I will or won’t have over my own life when it’s my time to die. I know death comes from unexpected directions.
I can live with that. What scares me is imagining being in the same position as the 93-year-old Vernon woman who made the news this week after her doctor was convicted of trying to help her commit suicide.
The woman managed to secure a lethal dose of pills for herself. But staff at facility where she stayed found out before she could take the pills. They stopped her.
I think we’re supposed to be happy that her life was saved. Instead, I find myself nervous at the reminder of how tough it still is for people to die with dignity.
If it were up to me, I would have a death like in the Dutch movie Antonia’s Line - holding court with one loved one after another in a long and final farewell.
My dad’s oldest sister had a death very much like that. I still remember her resplendent in her white negligee, inviting each of us into her bedroom in her final weeks for a last warm word. It seemed a perfect death, if there could be such a thing.
But here we are eight years later, convicting a doctor for trying to help another tired old lady die sooner rather than later. And I realize how tenuous it all is.
I can strive to die like my aunt. But I could just as easily end up stuck someplace where nobody knows how important it is for me to have some control over my death, and end up living long enough to see my doctor convicted of trying to help me out.
The laws needn’t be sweeping. We don’t need to get into abortion, or any actions that might lead to people dying who aren’t ready to die.
But an old person grown too tired and sick to live anymore - that’s a different matter. There has to be a way to create laws that maintain respect for the right to life overall while making exceptions for personal choice at the end of life.
In some cases, there’s nothing wrong with choosing death over life. We accept that in theory. More than seven out of 10 of Canadians polled last week by Ipsos-Reid came out in support of the right to die.
In practice, it all depends.
If your type of death involves a great deal of pain, your chances of getting enough legal medication to kill you is more of a possibility. If you’re dying of less dramatic causes and without much pain, you could linger for years.
You can do things like living wills, or pieces like this one so that nobody ever thinks for a moment that you’d choose to be kept alive at any cost.
But what kind of a guarantee is that? Until Canadian law enshrines some mechanism that gives people the right to die under certain circumstances, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Next thing you know, they’re “saving” your life and trying to send your doctor to jail.
Ultimately, the problem seems to be that we can’t shake the feeling that nobody sane would ever choose to die. In fact, we all die. We deserve the chance to exercise at least a modicum of control over how it goes.
We had a heck of a time registering gun owners, and I imagine that endorsing the right to die could be even more paralysing. But we can’t ignore the issue for much longer.
Not when three-quarters of Canadians surveyed say they support the right to die. Not when doctors still risk criminal records for giving their patients a helping hand.
When time ran out for my mom’s old dog Jake, the vet came by the house and shot him up with something that sent him into a gentle, happy stupor, and then deep sleep. When it came to the final needle, he didn’t even notice.
It was a great way to go. I can only hope for the same.