Point • Counter-point: The right to die
Point: Pro-assisted suicide
In April 2011, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit to challenge the laws regarding assisted suicide, specifically Section 241b of the Canadian Criminal Code, which states that it is an indictable offence to “[aid] or [abet] a person to commit suicide,” making the guilty party liable for imprisonment for up to fourteen years, regardless of whether or not suicide ensues.
The lawsuit’s main premise, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is that the Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide are unconstitutional because they “deny individuals the right to have control over choices that are fundamental to their physical, emotional and psychological dignity and restrict the liberty of physicians to deliver compassionate end of life care to incurably ill patients.”
The main fear in passing this type of legislation is that both physicians and patients would find ways to abuse the system, with some claiming that this is the top of a slippery slope which leads to legalizing euthanasia. However, the lawsuit is careful to outline specifically who would benefit from these possible changes to legislation.
While the term “medically-assisted dying” has been defined a number of ways in the past, the present lawsuit uses it to refer to two different types of assistance.
The first type, defined as “physician-assisted suicide,” involves a doctor prescribing a life-ending dose of medication to a mentally competent, incurably ill adult at his/her request, followed by the patient choosing to administer that medication him/herself. The second type, defined as “consensual physician-assisted death,” also involves a doctor prescribing a life-ending dose of medication to a mentally competent, incurably ill adult at his/her request, but this time, it is administered by a doctor or nurse because the patient is too ill to do so. In both of these situations, the proposed assistance would be available only to a terminally ill patient who is able to decide for him/herself, giving the patient the same control over his/her body as patients who opt for “do not resuscitate” clauses or to be taken off life support machines.
Such legislation has been successfully passed in a number of locations including Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as Oregon and Washington in the United States. They have avoided potential abuses of the system through a careful qualification process, which includes meeting certain criteria and meeting with a psychologist, and having their case handled by more than one physician, giving Canada multiple models to follow in their own legislation.
Another issue that frequently arises is a commonly held belief that life is a sacred thing. This idea, which is usually tied to religious doctrine, is one that needs to be re-evaluated in this context. The patients who qualify for medically-assisted death are deeply aware of the value of life, since their illness has stripped them of their ability to live it.
They are consciously choosing to put an
end to their pain by dying peacefully
and with their dignity. Those who are
unfortunate enough to find themselves
in locations that do not allow
medically-assisted death have been
known to commit suicide through other,
considerably more painful and
sometimes lengthy alternatives, such
as voluntary starvation. As such, the
debate should not stall over whether
life is sacred or not, but should
instead seek to understand the
perspective of those faced with this
This ties into some doctors’ objections to the practice, claiming that it violates their oath to “do no harm.” However, this raises the question of whether it is more harmful to the patient to force them to prolong their suffering or to allow them to end their life with the dignity they deserve. Medicine at its present stage cannot give an individual with conditions like advanced ALS back basic control over their body, but it can give them the power to decide what to do with their body, returning them a significant and precious amount of autonomy.
With the value we place on modern medicine — well deserved as it may be — it seems as if too much emphasis has been placed merely on keeping a person’s heart beating, rather than accepting death as a natural step. We are capable of medically extending life to its extremes, past the point of ensuring each individual’s basic enjoyment and quality of life.
Terminal patients who have little more than suffering left in their life should not be subjected to unnecessary restrictions that are based on the decisions of others.
Counter-point: Anti-assisted suicide
Recently, the British Columbia Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit put forth by The Farewell Foundation challenging the Canadian law that bans assisted suicide. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), seeking to affirm a right to death for individuals, is currently fighting a second lawsuit.
These lawsuits raise significant questions about how one justifies assisted suicide and whether assisted suicide is justifiable.
One of the most common arguments for assisted suicide is that individuals should have the right to decide if they want to end their own life.
However, this is an incomplete justification for assisted suicide as it asserts that choice is more important than common good. In other words, this justification does not directly tackle the question of whether it is right for someone to kill themselves in the first place.
A common argument for assisted suicide is that people should be allowed to choose a good or respectable death. How does one determine a good death without an idea of what happens after one dies? Put simply, can one affirm that selective death is a justifiable option if they do have a particular notion of the afterlife justifying their response?
These arguments showcase the fact that arguments for or against assisted suicide must logically be justified with an idea of the afterlife.
I would then argue that most ideas of the afterlife, even the idea that you cannot know about the afterlife, do not support any arguments for assisted suicide.
First, the idea that death leads to reincarnation or rebirth does not justify assisted suicide. The danger in a death that leads to rebirth is that the death you choose may lead to being born in an even worse situation than one you escaped from. Furthermore, religions, like Buddhism, that believe in rebirth see death as part of suffering not an escape from it. Suicide is seen as only leading to being reborn anew into suffering not solving your suffering.
Second, the idea that one’s life after death is connected to that of a God also does not support assisted suicide. Not only do most monotheistic religion scriptures speak out against suicide but the very idea of an all powerful and sometimes all loving God means that death will not lead to an escape from whatever God has planned.
Take for example the Christian God, who is all loving and all powerful. Life, in Christianity, is the most precious gift from God. Ending it at any point purposefully shows a lack of appreciation for this gift given out of God’s supreme love.
Finally, the idea that no one knows for certain what happens after death, or the belief that one falls into an eternal nothingness that ends everything also does not support assisted suicide. If one does not know what comes after death, how does one know ending one’s life will alleviate the pain and suffering of their life? Is the devil you know not better than the one you don’t know?
Likewise, if one believes death is the end of everything, is not any kind of existence better than nothingness? Even someone in extreme pain still has some joy in their life whether that is looking out a window at the sun or seeing friends and family in their hospital room.
If nothingness follows death, why not experience even the tiniest bit of anything before falling into eternal oblivion?
Death may be the final word on one’s life, but the afterlife is the final word in a debate on assisted suicide as it is the only basis to justify or oppose it. Yet ideas of the afterlife that support assisted suicide are rare as most naturally oppose the idea. Onlookers of the British Columbia Supreme Court would be wise to consider these ideas of the afterlife as justifying arguments as the lawsuit plays out.