Is there a state of life that’s worse than death? A lot of people — a large majority of Canadians, in fact — think so.
That’s why about 84 per cent of poll respondents recently agreed that a doctor should be able to help terminally ill patients end their own lives, under certain well-defined conditions.
If it were not true that there can be states of life worse than death, the Supreme Court of Canada would not be considering overturning its own 21-year-old ruling against medically-assisted suicide, in a case beginning this week.
If people throughout society did not believe there are states of life worse than death, suicide itself would not be as common as it is in Canada.
Still, a philosophical argument holds that it is never rational for a person to choose to die, therefore we cannot allow irrational people to decide their own fates.
A second philosophy, held by the federal government, says that a mentally-competent person living in pain with an incurable degenerative disease cannot be allowed to request medical assistance to end their suffering.
That is because once the absolute ban on assisted suicide is broken, vulnerable people will be pressured to request it, or feel as if their own lives have been devalued.
It’s hard enough to live with a severe disability. Nobody in that position needs to struggle for meaning in one’s own life, believing there are people out there who would rather you just asked to die.
Whatever the letter of the law might say, it is these philosophies that the Supreme Court must weigh in their deliberations.
Lee Carter is the daughter of Kathleen Carter, who was 89-years-old and suffering from ALS when she left Canada for another country where assisted suicide is legal. She died there, under a doctor’s care.
Kathleen Carter could not take advantage of a B.C. Supreme Court decision in favour of her right to choice, because the federal government successfully appealed that decision in the B.C. Court of Appeal a year later.
Gloria Taylor was also a plaintiff in that case and she became the only Canadian to win the right to a medically-assisted end of life.
But she died from her illness before she could make use of the choice the B.C. Supreme Court temporarily gave her.
Lee Carter, who helped her mother throughout the court battles, and into Switzerland, says her entire family has been living under a cloud of potential federal charges ever since.
Obviously, they hope that whatever comes out of the Supreme Court next will provide some closure.
In Canada, it is considered immoral to keep a pet alive, suffering the pain of an incurable disease. But in Canada, it is illegal for a person living in the same condition as a sick and dying animal to request the same grain of mercy.
The morality or immorality of that condition is not considered in the letter of the law.
Believe it or not, it is the questions of morality and the prevailing social standards of the day, not the letter of the law alone, that are on the desk of the court today.
Two years ago, before the B.C. Supreme Court decision in favour of Carter and Taylor was overturned on appeal, the federal government was given a one-year deadline to rewrite the laws concerning the issue of choice, for a right to die with dignity.
Instead, the government will fight the issue in the next higher court. Meanwhile, speeches are being made about improving the state of palliative care in the nation. Also needed, but not quite to the point.
In 1726, British satirist Jonathan Swift wrote his third volume of Gulliver’s Travels. In the book, Gulliver visited the land of the Struldbrugs, a race of people who were immortal. They had endless years to pursue science, art and philosophy.
But they were also condemned to suffer the consequences of old age. They lost their hair, their eyesight and their health as they sunk into ever-increasing frailty. A state of life, you could say, worse than death.
This week, Advocate columnist Talbot Boggs reported how a Canadian born today has a 50/50 chance of living to age 90, and a one-in-10 chance of living to 100.
For many thousands of these children, how will the last 10 years or so of life be experienced? As vital, whole people, or as a sort of Struldbrug?
Our generation always thinks the laws are about us. The Supreme Court needs to think the laws are about the future.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.