Sometimes words are like too long shoe laces—they kind of serve a purpose but they are forever tripping you up. I like to say that democracy is about compromise where no one gets exactly what they want so that we all get a much better life as negotiated common good that benefits all. Sometimes, however, compromise means no one ends up with anything worth having. And that certainly seems to be the case with the Liberal Party imposed compromises on the Supreme Court of Canada assisted dying dictum.
In its Feb. 6,2015 ruling the high court dug deeply into the Canadian values of a compassionate society and respect for the rights of individuals to come up with a decision that struck down the federal prohibition on physician assisted dying. It gave the Canadian government until Feb. 16, 2016 to bring in legislation to support physician assisted death for Canadians with a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition that causes unbearable suffering. It seemed for a moment like a story book ending to the struggles of people like Sue Rodriguez who had struggled so hard to gain public acknowledgment and judicial support for the right to choose to die with dignity when living becomes unbearable.
For a moment we seemed on the verge of a great breakthrough in the evolution of Canada as a just society. I use the term “Just Society” with bitter sweet intention as it was Pierre Trudeau that became Prime Minister on the promise to create a “Just Society” and worked so dedicatedly to bring that about with such monumental leaps forward as our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite intense pressure Pierre Trudeau insisted that the”Rights and Freedoms” of Canadians not be compromised away. Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau appears to have inherited the political savvy of his father but—certainly in the case of Assisted Dying—not the political backbone.
The current doctor-assisted dying bill brought in by the Liberals compromises away just about all the meaning that the Supreme Court dictated. With the clause making assisted dying only available for those whose death is impending (called “foreseeable” but that is clearly only a code for impending as on any longer timeline the term foreseeable becomes ubiquitous to the point of nonsense—death is “foreseeable” to all if you don’t limit the timeline!) the law with the foreseeable death clause defies its own reason de atre– many Canadians suffer unbearable illness AND there is no foreseeable end to it. Clearly the Supreme Court meant that assisted dying legislation should be available to those who suffer unbearably with no foreseeable end insight.
The self-defeating “foreseeable death” clause has clearly been put into the legislation as a sop to those who oppose any kind of individual choice to end otherwise unbearable and irremediable suffering. I actually have a hard time getting my mind around the idea that someone– collectively or individually– feels they have the right to make someone else suffer unbearable and incurable illness with no foreseeable end to that suffering. Apparently our local Catholic governed hospital feels their god dictates that no one escapes the suffering that he intends to inflict on them for as long as he chooses to inflict it on them. And people call such a god “loving”? Why, why, why? Why can’t people who are otherwise dedicated to alleviating suffering recognize the necessity of a self chosen end to the kind of suffering that takes all other choice away?
While those opposed to assisted dying seem deaf to the suffering of others and blind to the imperative need to be able to choose to end suffering before all dignity is taken away; deaf to the possibility of getting away while there is still enough life and love to give as their final remembrance. Love, dignity and friendship are life’s most precious gifts—as Sue Rodriguez so convincingly argued: more precious—more enduring, indeed, than life itself.
The second sop to those who oppose any choice in dying with dignity-the sop that utterly confounds any real significance to the new Liberal legislation– is the denial of any kind of advance directive in physician assisted dying.
Having seen the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease on my mother’s life, this idea of no advance directive is—to my way of thinking–likely the cruelest deviation of the Liberal legislation from the compassion demanded by the Supreme Court directive. Knowing that at the last moment before being “rescued” and subsequently confined to a hospital for the last six years of her life, my mother–with all the cognition she could muster– had gone out to the woods lightly dressed on a very cold day with every intention “to go home to be with my God.”; having seen the sheer panic in her at the hospital ward as she tried to catch a thought that never stayed long enough to know or put together with any other thought; seeing her illness and the impact of the drugs the hospital gave to keeper her zombified; knowing that she so much did not want to be an unresponsive object kept as a ward of the hospital over which she had been head nurse for so many years; looking into her eyes and seeing only fear and panic for the first years in the hospital, then sliding into no response at all; and finally my father insisting that they couldn’t go on force feeding her and then forcing tubes down her throat to aspirate the food they had force fed her because she had forgotten how to swallow; it came as a great relief that, finally, with the tubes out, she was allowed to go and be with her God—the God she so much wanted to join six years earlier.
Why anyone writing legislation about end of life options for those who suffer terribly would not include the ability for an individual to leave an advance directive about dignity in dying for when they can no longer speak for themselves is utterly beyond me. Surely if this legislation is to have any meaning at all an individual must have the right to say in advance when the illness has taken too much to go on. They must have the right to say that before they get to the place where they cannot put the thoughts together to speak for themselves—or even know themselves, before they can no longer remember how to deal with basic body functions or recognize anyone who comes to see them, before they cannot remember what it was that gave so much grace and goodness to their lives; surely, before all that suffering they deserve the right to have been permitted to chose their conditions for going gracefully rather than just be warehoused in an institution that is so utterly—and inescapably—not about the person they were or ever wanted to be. Clearly an advance directive in such cases is as much about dignity in life and respect for the inherent right of individuals to have some say in the meaning and purpose of their lives as it is about dignity in dying.
Until the Liberals change the legislation to recognize the right of those suffering unbearably to choose to die with dignity even if the illness is not immediately terminal, and the right of an advance directive for those who know that their illness will consume even their ability to speak for themselves the legislation will be only a mockery of the insight and compassionate intentions of the Supreme Court.