Dying with dignity – however you define it

  • February 24, 2016

In these days of financial and medical wizardry people regularly cheat the time-honoured inevitability of both the tax collector and the Grim Reaper – by paying less than their fair share or by living far longer than what would have been their allotted span of days even a generation ago.

A natural death, without some sort of life-sustaining medical intervention, is almost unnatural in the 21st century, but that intervention raises questions: what part should the patient play in deciding when the interventions – when his or her own life – should stop?

In its February 2015 decision in Carter, the Supreme Court of Canada said that in some cases, the patient deserves much more of a say.

Section 241(b) and s. 14  of the Criminal Code  unjustifiably infringe s. 7  of the Charter  and are of no force or effect to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.

The court allowed the government a year to change the laws accordingly, and has recently extended that deadline by four months, giving the new government to develop legislation reflecting the court’s decision. The Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying heard testimony from legal and medical experts over two weeks in January and February of this year.

In its submission to the committee, the CBA’s End-of-Life Working Group expressed the association’s policy, established through resolutions adopted by Council at 2015 meetings in February and August.

The CBA believes that physician-assisted dying is best approached as one option in an end-of-life care continuum. We encourage all governments in Canada to work closely together to ensure that there are robust policies and sufficient resources, consistent in all jurisdictions, to support a wide range of end-of-life choices for Canadians.

The letter, signed by CBA President Janet Fuhrer, argues that amendments to the Criminal Code are necessary to “ensure a common understanding of the law in all provinces and territories.”

The CBA encourages the government to “permit eligible individuals to make the choice that is most consistent with their sense of dignity and personal integrity,” whether that be palliative sedation, voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide, or any of the other options that are already available, such as refusing artificial nutrition and hydration, or asking for the removal of life-sustaining medical equipment.

Moreover, the government should ensure that the Criminal Code amendments “explicitly protect health professionals who provide supporting services during physician assisted dying as well as regulated health professionals who provide the means of dying while acting under the direction of a physician.”

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