Opinion: Life and Death and Intolerable Pain. Bill C-14 Flubs it.
A woman named Kay Carter arranged for her own death. She was suffering constant pain and knew that it would never get any better — her neurodegenerative condition might eventually bring death, but not “foreseeably.” The pain it caused was unmanageable. Pain had rendered her life so unbearable that she just wanted it over. And Kay was a determined person. She persevered.
Bedridden, in constant pain and unable even to feed herself, Kay enlisted the help of her family to do research. Ultimately, she made an appointment with the “Dignitas” not-for-profit organization in Switzerland, fulfilled their stringent requirements, and with the help and support of some of her children, she flew to Switzerland with them in 2010 for her appointment with death.
Members of Kay’s family also joined Gloria Taylor, a terminally ill person, in suing the Government of Canada, challenging the criminal prohibition against physician-assisted death. At trial, they were successful; but the judgment was appealed to the BC Court of Appeal, which overturned the trial judge’s decision. Gloria Taylor died in the meanwhile. The case (Carter v. Canada) went to the Supreme Court of Canada, with twenty-seven interveners adding their arguments to the case. The plaintiffs were successful again, and the prohibition against physician-assisted death was declared unconstitutional.
The Court’s decision stated, “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.”
That language is plain and easy to understand. Nothing the Court said can be interpreted to mean that a person’s death must be “foreseeable” except in the sense that everyone’s death is foreseeable, because we all die.
What has the Canadian Parliament done in their proposed legislation?
With one small paragraph in Bill C-14, they have undone the clear intention of the Supreme Court of Canada.
The proposed legislation lists the conditions a person must meet in order to qualify for physician-assisted “death with dignity.”
Those conditions seem reasonable at this time, except for the final one. That one — Section 241(2) (2) (d) — requires that the person’s “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable, taking into account all of their medical circumstances, without a prognosis necessarily having been made as to the specific length of time that they have remaining.”
And that means what, exactly? The provision is painfully vague, but suggests that a person suffering from the debilitating and unendurably painful condition that Kay Carter suffered could still be forced to continue suffering until some doctor decides that death is “reasonably foreseeable” without any assistance — and can defend that prognosis if challenged by, perhaps, some other doctors who disagree with the whole idea of doctor-assisted death and would like to make trouble for anyone who provides assistance in dying.
That paragraph brings confusion and the likelihood of further litigation. Without it, Bill C-14 would probably meet the intention of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Lee Carter, who supported her mother Kay through her illness and was among the plaintiffs in Carter v. Canada, is outraged by the restriction added to Bill C-14. In Ottawa for a press conference about the bill, she said,
“I am shocked that this government’s proposal would exclude the very people at the core of our case.
I feel angry, I feel sad, I’m bitterly disappointed … It’s like we’ve gone through this for five years — and for what?
Under this proposed legislation, my mother would be denied the rights to a dignified death that the Supreme Court said she had a right to.
We fought for half a decade and won our case at the highest court in the land, and this bill would erase the victory that we achieved for people like my mom.
It sends us back to square one.
We fought this case to ensure that people like my mom would have a way to legally and medically put an end to unimaginable suffering like hers.
When we had our victory with the Supreme Court last February, we rejoiced that no Canadian family would ever have to go through the hardship that we endured. But now under this bill, Kay Carter and many people like her will not qualify because their death is not reasonably foreseeable on account of their illness.
We call on the government to actually respect the Supreme Court’s decision and to ensure the rights of Canadians to escape intolerable suffering, including those, like Kay Carter, whose illnesses are not terminal.
This bill simply must be amended.”
Meanwhile, in other news, political unrest results in suicide bombers killing themselves and many others; officially-sanctioned bombing from military aircraft kills civilians and children as well as enemy combatants; and accidental deaths of military personnel from “friendly fire” accidents keep happening. In a northern Canadian community, life is so bad that many youth attempt suicide. On our highways, people keep killing themselves and others by paying attention to cell-phones instead of attending to their driving. And by driving too fast for conditions.
In so many ways, we are careless of life. But painfully ill people whose medical conditions could leave them debilitated and suffering for many years are, according to Bill C-14 and in spite of its other provisions, not allowed to have help with an easeful death to relieve them of their pain.