Friday, August 05, 2011
The long wait for an easier death
“No consensus can be found in favour of the decriminalization of assisted suicide. To the extent that there is a consensus, it is that human life must be respected.”
With those words, Supreme Court Justice John Sopinka ended any hope Sue Rodriguez had of using her own death to change Canadian laws around assisted suicide. She got the word on Sept. 29, 1993, and less than five months later ended her life the old-fashioned way - illegally, helped along by a doctor who has never been publicly identified.
And for the most part, that has been that. A few criminal cases alleging assisted suicide pop up in the media from time to time, but little has changed. Imagine what the courageous Rodriguez might have to say if she’d lived long enough to see that we’d still be paralyzed over assisted suicide 18 years later.
But suddenly the issue is back in the news, with two different proponents now preparing to push challenges through Canada’s court system.
Lawyer Joe Arvay, acting on behalf of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, is representing Gloria Taylor. Like Rodriguez, the B.C. woman has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and wants the right to have someone assist her with her death when the time comes.
Meanwhile, the Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die - a New Westminster group headed by a veteran of the right-to-die movement - is using its failed attempt to become a non-profit as reason for a constitutional challenge.
Foundation director and B.C. criminologist Russel Ogden has been in the media off and on for years as an advocate of assisted suicide, pursuing the issue with such intensity that it sometimes lands him in trouble with his college and university bosses. He’s got a clip on YouTube demonstrating how to kill yourself with helium.
He and Arvay both contend that much has changed since Rodriguez’s case, and that a legal challenge will have more traction this time around.
I’m not so sure. Canadians still haven’t had a real conversation about the right to die.
Yes, more countries have changed their laws in the years since Rodriguez’s court fight. Their experiences have demonstrated that legalizing assisted suicide need not tear a society apart. Oregon legalized assisted suicide the same year Rodriguez died, and in almost two decades only a scant 400 Oregonians - mostly older people with cancer - have chosen that option.
But if the incredibly affecting Rodriguez wasn’t enough to galvanize a country, I don’t know what the odds are for a challenge built around non-profit status. Perhaps Arvay will have more luck, although his goal of seeing Taylor’s challenge settled by November seems out of reach.
The Farewell Foundation was denied non-profit status in March by the B.C. Registrar of Companies, which noted in its decision that no organization whose purpose is criminal - in this case, assisting people to die - can be incorporated under the Society Act.
The foundation is leveraging that rejection into a larger fight about the constitutionality of the assisted-suicide laws. Its case in a nutshell: The activities of the Farewell Foundation are in fact lawful because the laws related to assisted suicide are themselves “unlawful.”
(And if that doesn’t work, the foundation also filed a civil suit against the Attorney General of Canada challenging the constitutionality of the assisted-suicide prohibition.)
I watched old CBC footage of Rodriguez this week in news clips from the months before her death. I’d forgotten what an amazing advocate she was - so open and well-spoken, lighting up the screen with her big smile even in the late stages of a disease that was slowly taking away her every function.
If charisma had anything to do with whether justice prevailed, Rodriguez would have won her case hands down. The Farewell Foundation is taking things in a different direction, with an approach that will be a tougher sell with a public that still hasn’t sorted out its feelings around the right to die.
It could be that the concept of dying with dignity will find more traction this time around. The politically powerful baby boomer generation was perhaps too young during Rodriguez’s time to care much about the issues she was raising. That’s no longer the case.
A 2010 poll confirmed what other polls over the years have repeatedly found: That a majority of Canadians want assisted suicide legalized. But the missed opportunity of 1993 still hangs over us, and it seems we never quite want it enough.