by Thomas Walkom
Much of the assisted-dying debate has focused on whether enough people in pain will be able to end their lives. In legal terms this is a good question. Why should some be denied their constitutional right to death?
But in broader human terms it has things backward. If government has any role in this life-and-death matter it is not to ensure that as many as possible exercise their right to die. Rather it is to create conditions that would allow as many as possible to keep on living.
The too-narrow critique was raised again in the Senate Wednesday as members of the upper chamber questioned Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Health Minister Jane Philpott.
Most questioners were particularly irked by a clause in the bill that would limit voluntary euthanasia to those near death.
Some senators asked why the right to be killed should be denied to those who face intolerable suffering but are not about to die. Others asked why the bill would bar people from deciding ahead of time that they should be killed later if they found themselves with a debilitating condition such as dementia.
In the context of rights alone, these are valid questions. But in the context of life and death – which is what Bill C-14 is about – they are odd ones.
The right to death is not the same as other rights. Unlike, say, the right to free speech, it is irrevocable.
Those exercising free speech rights can reverse themselves later. Those exercising death rights cannot. Death is a one-way ticket.
Canadian society recognizes this when it comes to suicide. Suicide is seen as a tragedy. We devote medical resources to psychiatrists and others in the hope that they can talk people out of suicide. We involuntarily commit to hospital those deemed at risk of harming themselves.
In Toronto, special fences exist along the Bloor-Danforth viaduct to deter would-be suicides from hurling themselves into the Don Valley.
In short, while suicide is legal in Canada, society does everything it can to convince those weary of life from taking this extreme measure.
Yet most of the debate around medically assisted death is entirely different. Here, the questions most commonly raised are whether the proposed legislation is broad enough: Should it include those suffering pain who are not near death? Should we let minors take advantage of the right to be voluntarily killed?
What about those fearful of getting Alzheimer’s in the future? Should they be allowed to make advance directives to be killed?
Rarely does the debate focus on measures that might persuade the sufferers to keep on living. To their credit, some senators did raise this issue Wednesday.
New Brunswick’s Paul McIntyre, a Conservative, asked Philpott how serious the government is about providing better palliative care to those near death. The health minister said the government is “prepared to make significant investments” in the field.
Ontario’s Tobias Enverga, another Conservative, asked a similar question: If Ottawa did pony up cash to make the lives of those near death more bearable, how could it be sure the provinces would spend it on palliative care?
Philpott answered that the debate over C-14 has “opened up a conversation for us as Canadians about what we want a good death to be like.”
Questions of the money devoted to palliative and long-term care matter because, in the end, it will be the elderly who end up availing themselves of medically assisted death.
Most will do so not because they suffer from a relatively rare and high-profile condition, such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but simply because they are old.
In Belgium, according to government statistics, 75 per cent of those who take advantage of voluntary euthanasia are between the ages of 60 and 89.
It is no coincidence that Canada’s debate over voluntary euthanasia comes as this country struggles over how to pay for the costs associated with an aging population. We may decry death, but it is the cheapest solution.
Some fret over whether some version of Bill C-14 will be enacted before the Supreme Court’s arbitrary June 6 deadline. I am not sure this matters much.
I am, however, puzzled that so much of the debate – particularly on the left – has been framed around simple questions of individual rights.
Yes, those in unbearable agony who want to die should be able to enlist medical help. But, where possible, wouldn’t it be better if Canadians collectively tried to alleviate that agony and provide reasons to live?
Copyright 2016 = Torstar Syndication Services