Editorial: Assisted dying a massive shift
MARCH 2, 2016 12:06 AM
Assisted suicide is not a theoretical issue. Any thoughts to the contrary have been banished by John Hofsess, the Victoria writer who founded the Right to Die Society of Canada, in his post-humously published admission that he killed eight people who wanted to end their own lives.
Hofsess died Monday in a Swiss euthanasia clinic, the same day the magazine Toronto Life published his account of helping people die.
Hofsess’s revelation underscores the challenges Parliament faces in meeting the Supreme Court of Canada’s June 6 deadline for assisted-dying legislation. That’s scant time to draft one of the most important pieces of legislation in Canadian history.
This is a fundamental shift that will make it legal for one person to help end another person’s life. It’s an issue that deeply divides Canadians, and legislators must tread wisely as they take into consideration widely disparate beliefs and views.
But it’s work that cannot be delayed. Hofsess wrote that between 1999 and 2001, he helped eight people die, including celebrated Canadian poet Al Purdy, whose life ended in his home near Sidney on April 21, 2000.
Hofsess tells us he and Evelyn Martens, his Right to Die colleague, administered the procedures that ended Purdy’s life. The poet, who suffered from advanced lung cancer and other ailments, was a member of the Right to Die Society, as were the other seven people Hofsess helped to die.
Had his death in Switzerland not put him out of reach of the law, Hofsess could have been charged with a variety of crimes, including first-degree murder. That highlights the limbo into which such matters were placed by the Supreme Court’s decision that a ban on assisted suicide is unconstitutional.
Even before that ruling, assisted suicides were occurring. Sue Rodriguez of North Saanich died in her home in 1994 with the help of a sympathetic physician who has never been identified.
Suffering from ALS, Rodriguez took her case to the Supreme Court in seeking the right to choose when her life ended. She lost the case, but her crusade gave impetus to the right-to-die cause.
Two other B.C. women, Kathleen Carter and Gloria Taylor, both suffering debilitating diseases, took their quest for the right to die to the Supreme Court, which resulted in the 2015 ruling. Neither lived to see the outcome — Carter travelled to Switzerland for an assisted death in 2010, and Taylor died of an infection in 2012.
While many applauded the court’s ruling, many others were alarmed. It is up to Parliament to reconcile the conflicting concerns. Leaving it up to provinces and medical associations to implement regulations isn’t an option — the law should be consistently applied across the country.
Legalized assisted suicide should be a choice available to adults capable of rational thought. It should still be illegal to encourage suicide, or help people commit suicide when they are suffering from depression or medical conditions that would affect their ability to think clearly and logically.
Regardless of where one stands on the issue, legalization of assisted suicide is a reality. But that doesn’t mean the door should be left wide open. Safeguards are essential. We must ensure that people can make their decisions without duress, especially those who have difficulty communicating. Disabled persons must be assured their lives do not count less than other lives.
Wisdom and compassion, not political opportunism, should prevail. This is a time for Parliament to set partisanship aside, to work together for those who favour assisted suicide, while taking into consideration the beliefs and feelings of those who don’t.
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