Abortion. Capital punishment. Assisted suicide. If you were making a list of the top three subjects that no politician ever wants to discuss, those would probably score highest in Canada. Although most people probably won’t squawk if the status of the first two issues remains as it is, more and more Canadians are starting to murmur about the need for change on the matter of assisted suicide.
In a touching column in The Globe and Mail on June 27th, writer Gary Mason is more than just murmuring. He begins his article by stating bluntly: “One day, society will look back at the way we currently allow some people to spend their last stretch of time on Earth, and it will abhor us.”
Strong words, indeed. Mason admits he’s been on the fence about the issue in the past. “On one hand, I understand there are people whose lives have become essentially valueless, because of illness, tragedy or some other reason. Because of that, they would rather not spend their final days trapped in a world of misery, despair, pain and/or physical suffering,” Mason writes.
On the other hand, however, he states, “I’ve had trouble imagining signing an order to end a person’s life, especially if that person was someone I spent a lifetime loving.”
When his father got sick, he wrestled with both sides of the argument, despite the fact that his dad’s final years were entirely miserable. Still, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of voting to end someone’s life. In a gut-clenching moment, he admits, “Now, I realize how incredibly selfish that point of view was.”
What changed his mind? Mason says the ordeal of watching his younger brother die, someone he wasn’t even particularly close to, was what pushed him over the edge in the assisted suicide debate.
“When I first saw him in hospital, I barely recognized the person with whom I’d once shared a bedroom. His skin hung off his bones. Once one of the strongest, most robust persons I’d ever known, he might have weighed 36 kilograms in the final week of his life. As he lay in his room, he was often delusional. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He ripped out drips that had been inserted into various parts of his body as he flailed about. He could only mumble a few words, but the ones he whispered to me one afternoon I will never forget: ‘I want to die, Gary. Please let me die.’”
The situation got so bad, his brother begged Mason to steal a needle and do what had to be done. This was not some hypothetical debate among politicians or people sitting around a water cooler or arguing at a church meeting. This was a real person asking Mason to end his misery, to make a life-changing ethical decision and break the law. Mason realized, “His were precisely the circumstances that would qualify for physician-assisted death consideration in more enlightened jurisdictions around the world.”
Thankfully for Mason, he never had to make the ultimate decision because, after a few more days of torture, his brother finally passed away. But, that didn’t end Mason’s mental dilemma. Or his thoughts about others going through their own ethical conundrums.
“I know there are many Canadians who have shared similar experiences, maybe ones that have also reshaped their thinking on the question of dying with dignity,” says Mason. “There seems little doubt now that we are going to have a national debate on this matter, and this is only a good thing. The Supreme Court of Canada is set to rule on it for a second time. And of course, the province of Quebec has already gone ahead with comprehensive end-of-life legislation, which could also get challenged in the courts.”
Britain is also considering the idea of legalizing assisted suicide, notes Mason, and he believes Canada has to look seriously at how various U.S. states and other countries are dealing with the issue. He realizes what a minefield the debate may become.
“I’m not suggesting for a second that there is anything straightforward about this discussion. The question of whether the sanctity of life trumps personal freedom, or vice versa, is a complex and divisive one. It’s also vulnerable to histrionics, overstatement and oversimplification,” he comments. And weak-willed Canadian politicians are highly unlikely to put it on their “To Do” lists anytime soon.
But, the issue is not going to go away. In fact, it will only grow in the coming years. “As Canada’s baby boomers begin their grand exit, the demand for a debate on this subject is only going to intensify,” says Mason.
According to Statistics Canada, the average life expectancy for a Canadian male rose from 59 in 1920, to 69 in 1972, and now stands at over 79. Similarly, women’s life expectancy went from 61 to 76 to 83 over the same timeframe.
It’s wonderful that more and more people are living into their 80s, 90s and even past 100. What a blessing for those who are healthy, active and mentally vibrant. But what about those who aren’t? As Canada’s senior population continues to grow, the issue of assisted suicide will demand more and more attention.
At some point in our lives, we’ll likely all have to deal with this dilemma. How will our positions change when that happens?
For Mason, the shift was dramatic. “After witnessing the sad and mostly undignified end to my brother’s life, I know where I now stand,” he admits. No matter what your own stance, even if it’s a morally or theologically-based one, how will it hold up when you’re faced head-on with someone close to you who’s dying? Be prepared to find out.