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Rights + Justice

A Plea to Legalize 'Death with Dignity'

As Canada revisits a ban on doctor-assisted suicide, I think of my mom, who died in needless pain.

Bill Tieleman 21 Jan

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected], follow on Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

"It doesn't make any sense that it's legal for me to commit suicide, but it's illegal for someone to help me to die at peace, without pain, in the comfort of my home, with family and friends surrounding me." -- Gloria Taylor, plaintiff

Mother's Day will always be difficult for our family, because it's the day my mom started coughing up blood and was rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

As I looked in her eyes before the paramedics arrived, we both wordlessly knew that she would never again set foot in her cozy apartment filled with the treasures of a rich life.

Pat Tieleman died three weeks later of lung cancer. And at the end, she needlessly died in pain -- because of an unjust law she opposed.

I applaud the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) for taking on that law, which stops doctors from helping suffering, terminally ill patients leave this world with the aid of a merciful dose of drugs.

The Supreme Court of Canada last week agreed to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld a ban on physician-assisted suicide.

The B.C. Appeal Court split decision overturned an eloquent, well-researched and compassionate decision by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith, saying that the right to die with dignity is protected by Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Gloria Taylor was one of the BCCLA plaintiffs, a brave woman suffering from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) -- also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease -- that cruelly paralyzes the body and kills two to three Canadians every day.

When she could no longer deal with the pain and agony of terminal illness, Taylor wanted the right to die on her own terms. She won a personal exemption to do so through Smith's decision, but died of other causes before she could exercise it.

But thanks to her, Canada's highest court will rule again on physician-assisted suicide, revisiting issues narrowly decided in the famous case of Sue Rodriguez 20 years ago.

Witnessing death without dignity

My mom's death on May 26, 2010 convinced me overwhelmingly that the ban on physician-assisted suicide is unjust.

Pat Tieleman was a registered nurse who worked with the elderly for part of her career. She and my father, Harry, always believed that individuals should have the right to decide when the suffering of their terminal illness should stop, as well as the right to a doctor to help ease the inevitable end.

Sadly, my father also died in pain. His life ended after a battle with Alzheimer's in 2000.

In both cases I watched my parents' disease-ravaged bodies convulsively shut down for hours before death came. It was extremely difficult to witness, and in my mom's case I insisted a nurse administer additional morphine.

The medical team at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital's palliative care unit was excellent and compassionate, and it was not their fault a law they must obey is so wrong.

Gov't resists public opinion

Other countries including the Netherlands -- ironically my father's homeland -- Belgium, and our American neighbours in Washington, Oregon and Vermont States have done the right thing and carefully legislated rules that allow physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

And Canadians are overwhelmingly in favour of the same, in public opinion poll after poll.

An Environics survey released in Oct. 2013 found that 71 per cent of those polled supported the right of "a terminally ill or severely disabled person to end their life," while 19 per cent disapproved.

But both the federal and British Columbia governments disagree, fighting to overturn the original Gloria Taylor decision and now defending the ban on euthanasia in the Supreme Court of Canada. The court agreed to hear the case but rejected a request for an expedited hearing.

That likely means no decision until 2015 -- far too late for many terminally ill Canadians.

It's time Canadians spoke out against this cruel law that imposes suffering on those already dying in pain. It could and should be changed by Parliament before the hearing.

No one should face death the way my parents did. If you agree, tell your Member of Parliament and B.C. Member of the Legislative Assembly that outlawing mercy is wrong.

What I say to doubters

Not everyone agrees with me. I recently debated euthanasia with Barbara Kay of the National Post on CBC Radio's The 180 with host Jim Brown.

Kay stated that contrary to my parents' experience, her parents died peacefully with appropriate medical care and pain management, and argued that physician-assisted suicide is unnecessary.

I'm glad for her and anyone else whose loved ones pass without pain. But far too many people do not, and their right to end their life free of suffering is what's at stake.

Those who worry about euthanasia becoming a widespread practice to get rid of the elderly, people with disabilities and others simply for "convenience" should look at the reports from places where physician-assisted suicide is legal.

Washington State's annual Death With Dignity Act report for 2012 -- the state legalized the practice in 2009 after a voter initiative passed -- shows that relatively few people need to take this option.

In 2012, just 121 participants requested a lethal dose of medication. The legislation requires a doctor to write a prescription after determining their patient has less than six months to live.

Of the 104 patients who died in 2012, 73 per cent suffered from cancer and another 10 per cent with neurodegenerative disease, including ALS. The remaining 17 per cent had other illnesses, including heart and respiratory disease.

At the end

Some very prominent people support physician-assisted suicide, including renowned theoretical physicist and author professor Stephen Hawking, who has ALS.

"I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives, and those who help them should be free from prosecution," Hawking told the BBC.

Hawking is not alone. Prominent doctor Donald Low, who was microbiologist in chief at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital and leading medical spokesperson during the 2003 SARS crisis, made a video plea for physician-assisted suicide days before he died of terminal brain cancer on Sept. 18, 2013.

"I know I'm going to die, what worries me is how I'm going to die," the 68-year-old Low said in the moving video.

"What the end is going to look like, that's what's bothering me the most," he said, referring to dying without assistance.

He outlined what happens elsewhere but not in Canada: "They give you a very simple way out. You drink a cocktail and you fall asleep, and you do this in the presence of your family. In countries where it's legal, it's quite easy to do. In countries where it's not legal, it's pretty well impossible."

It's time to listen to people like Hawking and Low, as well as ordinary Canadians like Pat and Harry Tieleman, and demand that legislators allow the terminally ill the death with dignity they deserve.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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