Assisted Suicide in Canada (Part IV): Canada should decriminalize assisted dying
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The editors of Juris Diction have chosen to discuss the normative issues surrounding assisted dying under the ‘assisted suicide’ moniker. I will ignore this label because it is highly prejudicial to the case I wish to defend. We know from many a survey that ‘assisted suicide’ isn’t quite a neutral description of assisted dying. More people, when surveyed on the permissibility of assisted dying (also encompassing voluntary euthanasia) support ‘assisted dying’ than support ‘assisted suicide’. It is also the case that our debate, as well as legislation promulgated in Quebec, has moved beyond ‘assisted suicide’ to encompass other forms of assisted dying, including voluntary euthanasia, terminal sedation, and so on and so forth. Words matter.
I am in favour of the decriminalization of assisted dying for competent people who consider their lives after careful consideration of their life prospects as not worth living. As much as I appreciate that liberalism today evokes negative connotations in many people’s minds, it still seems true to me that we ought to be able to make fundamental self-regarding choices affecting our lives based on our own values. It must not be the role of the liberal state to enforce religious mores in this context, and the fact of the matter is that to date there are no known powerful secular arguments against the decriminalization of assisted dying.
This might sound a bit abstract to you, so let me indicate what this would mean practically for Canada. If comprehensive data gathered in European and North American jurisdictions that have decriminalized assisted dying are anything to go by, we would also find that in our country the average person availing themselves of assisted dying are well-educated middle- to upper-class late-stage cancer patients. They are not, as religiously-motivated opponents of these sorts of choices never cease to deceive us, vulnerable disabled or impoverished patients needing our special protection from the purportedly abusive nature of such permissive legislation.
There is no evidence of a slippery slope in jurisdictions that have decriminalized assisted dying from uncontroversial cases (i.e. the kinds of patients I mentioned just a moment ago) to highly controversial cases (people who might not wish to see their lives terminated and who would get killed anyway). Available data strongly suggest that the decriminalization of assisted dying does away with many of the clandestine activities that occur in societies where assisted dying is not legally permissible.
Doctors should be the ones to provide this sort of health care service (Quebec legislators got it right—this is part of the spectrum of health care provision), because of their superior knowledge, because of their societally granted near-monopoly on the prescription of medication, but also because they are a very tightly regulated profession. At the time of writing, more than a quarter of doctors would be willing to provide assisted dying health care services. That is an excellent start.
If democracy means anything at all, the fact that in excess of 80 per cent of Canadians today support the decriminalization of assisted dying should give us some indication of how we would like the Supreme Court of Canada to resolve this matter, given the continuing failure of our elected parliamentarians to deliver on this front.
Dr. Udo Schuklenk is Professor of Philosophy and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics at Queen’s University. He is also Joint Editor-in-Chief of Bioethics & Developing World Bioethics. Dr. Schuklenk is a guest contributor to Juris Diction.
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To read Jonathan Nehmetallah’s introduction piece, visit Part I by clicking here. For Katherine Deakon’s opinion piece, visit Part II here. For medical student Sophie Palmer’s article, visit Part III here. For Dr. Kaplan’s opinion piece, visit Part V here.