Ten years ago when there was no chance at physician-assisted death, Martha Kostuch took control of her terminal diagnosis.
In 2007, the well-known environmental activist and retired veterinarian from the Rocky Mountain House area found out she had a Parkinson’s-like condition called multiple system atrophy and publicly discussed her intention to take her own life before the rare and fast-progressing neurological disorder did it for her. She died in 2008 at age 58.
Times have definitely changed.
Since January, the Supreme Court has allowed adults to apply to the superior court in their jurisdiction for doctor-assisted death, if certain criteria were met, as the federal government was crafting rules to meet the Supreme Court’s June 6 deadline.
According to a recent ruling from the Alberta Court of Appeal, between 16 and 20 applications for a physician-assisted death have been made to courts across the country and none were opposed except for a request by a 58-year-old Central Alberta woman.
In April, the Central Albertan, known only as E.F. in court documents to protect her identity, was allowed by Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to access a physician’s help to die.
Then the Attorney Generals of Canada and British Columbia, the province where her doctor practises, appealed the decision and lost.
The family of E.F. has pleaded for the Attorney General of Canada to respect the court decisions.
“For eight years, our beloved wife and mother has been living in agony. It began with an intense pain on her left side and then spread relentlessly, savage like wildfire, over her entire body. She says it feels like she’s under a constant barrage of arrows from an archer’s bow. Her searing migraines are nightmares from which she cannot wake,” said the family of E.F. in the statement released by their lawyer.
The ruling from the Alberta Court of Appeal said the woman has severe conversion disorder, a psychiatric movement disorder that causes involuntary muscle spams causing severe and constant pain. Her eyelids have spasmed shut leaving her blind. She has significant sleep and digestive problems and has lost significant weight and muscle mass. She needs to be carried or in a wheelchair.
The court said that while her condition was a psychiatric one, her cognitive ability to make informed decisions was unimpaired, including providing consent to terminate her life.
“I am a prisoner of my body. It has betrayed me,” she said in the statement from her lawyer.
The family asked for privacy during their “precious last days together.”
“However, we thank Canadians for their prayers and well wishes. We draw strength and hope from your words of support.”
Kostuch’s son Ed said he doesn’t expect the federal government to have regulations in place by June 6, but all the debate and discussion about doctor-assisted death is good.
“Why make people suffer. If someone wants to go through (physician-assisted death) that’s great. It would take a huge amount of stress off of not only the person who is making that choice, but also the family. But if somebody doesn’t want to go through it, I don’t think we should be forcing people to do it as a society,” said Ed Kostuch, of B.C.
He said he was comfortable with his mother’s decision, but it would have been much better for everyone to go to a medical facility as a family for her death.
“I think doctor-assisted suicide would allow people to live longer because they wouldn’t necessarily have to commit suicide on their own. A person would feel comfortable pushing it as long as they could if they knew their wishes would be carried out at an appropriate time,” Kostuch said.
He said not being able to talk about her plans was a really tough spot to be in.
“The circumstances around the legalities and what we had to do to stay within the law made it more difficult than it needed to be. Plus she couldn’t reach out to professionals like psychiatrists and doctors because as soon as you do they have an obligation to go seek institutionalization.”
He firmly believed that if he had a terminal illness and was going to suffer, he would choose physician-assisted death.
“I would not want to suffer for years just to stay alive,” Kostuch said.
Red Deer-Mountain View MP Earl Dreeshen said the proposed bill to allow physician-assisted death is flawed and if an extension was requested it would likely be possible.
“(The federal government) is rushing it through. The reality is there’s been a lot of questions, a lot of concerns that people have,” Dreeshen said.
“People can always point fingers at other people for why it didn’t happen. The reality is when you get legislation like this you want to make sure it’s done properly.”
He said the bill might make it to the Senate by the end of next week, but senators will still want to discuss it.