How to Die in Canada

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

Last week, our neighbors to the north took a huge step towards legalizing physician aid-in-dying. On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down that country’s ban on the practice, suspending two sections of the Criminal Code that outlawed assisted suicide and euthanasia, and ordering the Canadian Parliament and the various provincial legislatures to draft new legislation that would allow physician aid-in-dying.

This is not the first time that Canada has dipped it toe into these treacherous waters. Earlier this year, the Canadian province of Quebec passed Bill 52, also known as ‘An Act Respecting End-of-Life Care’. That Act, which would have taken effect in December, would grant terminally ill Quebecers the right to request a physician’s aid in dying.

In order to qualify for medical assistance in ending their lives, however, these patients must have “an incurable illness that is causing unbearable suffering”. They would have to be in constant and unbearable pain that doctors couldn’t relieve with treatment. The request for aid-in-dying would also have to be made in writing, witnessed by the attending physician, and approved though consultation with a medical team after two doctors determine that the patient is competent to make this request.

The Supreme Court ruling went much further than what Quebec’s law would allow. The nine Canadian justices ruled that physician-assisted suicide should be made available to any competent adult who “clearly consents to the termination of life and 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.”

By including references to disability and psychological suffering, the Court potentially opened the doors not only to those with terminal illnesses, but also those with chronic but not life threatening illness or disabilities, as well as those suffering from mental illness.

It is unclear how Canadian legislators and medical professionals will respond to this ruling, but they will face a number of challenges in devising an aid-in-dying process that will allow seriously ill patients to end their lives peacefully while still protecting their rights and safety.

But this is a Canadian problem, right?. Why should we care what is happening in the Great White North? Rulings by that country’s Supreme Court have no bearing on US law. Moreover, any aid-in-dying process that our neighbors create is likely to be limited to the citizens and residents of Canada, preventing so-called ‘euthanasia tourism’.

But we should care about what’s happening in Canada because the aid-in-dying movement is also becoming an increasingly powerful voice in US medical practice (particularly following the death of Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill 29-year-old who spoke publicly about moving from California to Oregon in order to legally end her life). American policymakers and physicians can learn a lot from watching the Canadian experiment.

Currently, only five states allow physician aid-in-dying: Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. In three of those states, laws allowing terminally ill patients to request a doctor’s assistance in ending their own lives were passed by popular referendum or legislative votes. Similar legislative bills or public referendums have been proposed in other states, and popular support for physician aid-in-dying is increasing.

Just last November, for instance, Massachusetts’ voters narrowly defeated a referendum called Question 2 that would have legalized physician aid-in-dying in that state. That narrow 51-49 loss occurred only after well funded and politically savvy opponents were able to reframe discussion about the referendum. The public debate about Question 2 became less about the rights of the terminally ill and more about potential abuses of the disabled and the elderly. But recent polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of voters in the Bay State now support physician aid-in-dying, and a new bill to legalize the practice is currently winding its way through the Massachusetts legislature.

Those of us who live in the Empire State may never get a chance to vote on physician aid-in-dying as New York does not have a popular initiative and referendum process. Efforts have been made to introduce aid-in-dying bills in the state legislature, but these bills face an uphill battle due to strong opposition by religious groups, disability advocates and conservative lawmakers. But this doesn’t mean that physician-assisted suicide won’t soon be legal in New York.

As with Montana and New Mexico, physician aid-in-dying may become legal in New York via court ruling. Just last week, a group of terminally ill patients and clinicians filed a lawsuit asking the New York Supreme Court to invalidate the state’s current prohibition on assisted-suicide.

Currently, a doctor who prescribes a fatal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient can be prosecuted for manslaughter under New York’s Assisted Suicide Statute, which makes it a crime to “intentionally cause or aid another person to commit suicide.” To date, no doctor has ever been prosecuted under this statute. Despite this, the plaintiffs argue that current assisted suicide laws violate the equal protection clause of the State Constitution. For example, physicians are already help some terminally ill patients die (by removing life support) but they cannot help patients who do not rely on continuous medical intervention to live.

Whether or not the New York Supreme Court will rule for the plaintiffs in this case remains to be seen, but the tide of public opinion is clearly shifting in favor of physician aid-in-dying. Physician aid-in-dying may not become the law of the land in New York anytime soon (be it by legislative action or judicial fiat), we need to start talking about it.

No matter which side of the debate you are on — either for or against physician aid-in-dying — we need to have a thoughtful and respectful discussion about dying, about the rights of the terminally ill, and about the role that physicians should play in helping patients attain a peaceful death. And we should watch the Canadian experiment carefully (and the experience of Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington), and learn from their success and mistakes.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on February 12, 2015, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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