A new law from Quebec has reopened the national debate about assisted suicide. The law allows doctors to end the lives of people who ask repeatedly, who are mentally sound, and who are dealing with unbearable and untreatable physical or psychological pain. It has safeguards built in to ensure that euthanasia cannot be performed without someone’s consent, on a whim, or if there is any hope of recovery. It lets people make up their own mind about what matters to them, which is what everyone should want in a free and democratic society.
Since provinces get to regulate health care under the Canadian constitution, this should be the end of the story. It isn’t. Immediately after the Quebec legislature voted 94 to 22 to pass the law, the federal government reminded us all that assisted suicide is still a criminal act. Since the federal government has the power to make criminal laws, this seems constitutional too. For now, we remain at a legal stalemate.
No one wants to argue that life isn’t important. It is, but it is not the only important thing. First, there are plenty of people of faith who believe that while life is sacred, it is not the only thing that is sacred. A parent who sacrifices his life for his child’s is protecting that which is more sacred – their child – at the expense of something less sacred – their own life.
There are also those of us who reject the idea that anything is sacred. For atheists and others who don’t want to live by the requirements of other people’s superstitions, life is still extremely important. In fact, when you reject the idea of an afterlife, this life – with all its limits and all its imperfections – is all we have. If anything, to the non-believer, life is more important because nothing else is possible.
Life involves choice, but when you’re in overwhelming, unending suffering, the peace of mind needed for choice becomes impossible.
When we can get past the talk of sacredness, we can see that the importance of life depends on an ability to live it. Life involves choice, but when you’re in overwhelming, unending suffering, the peace of mind needed for choice becomes impossible. Once that ability fades beyond recognition, it should be up to each of us to choose to hang on or to choose to stop fighting. Either choice should be respected, but the current system does not give us this choice. It imposes the dogma of some on the lives, and deaths, of all.
I want my parents to be able to make these decisions for themselves, and I want their doctors to be able to help my parents with whatever their choice is. If life is full of nothing but agony, yet my parents cannot take the necessary steps to end their own life, I don’t want to be the one to help them. I’d like a doctor to do that. But as it is, neither the doctor nor I can do anything without threat of criminal prosecution. Nothing, that is, except watch them suffer.
But frankly, I don’t want this for my parents; I want it for my son. Should I be in a position where I’d rather not live but am incapable of dealing with that myself, I don’t want him to have to make the judgement or feel like he has to take any action to help me. And I also don’t want him to have to watch me suffer. I’d do anything for my parents, and I expect he’d do anything for me, but I shouldn’t have to and neither should he.
This seems to put a lot of weight on doctors, and it does. It can’t be an easy thing to work in palliative care. But this is what we train our doctors for. We train them to make detached decisions. We teach them to do no harm. But when an individual no longer wants to live, it seems to me that the greatest harm is to force them to stay alive. As such, the best a doctor can do to care for a patient with such a wish is to help them die as comfortably as they can. This approach isn’t perfect but nothing in this world is.
And for those of us who think like I do, this world is all there is.
Ray Critch teaches philosophy and works with the Law and Society Program at Memorial University in his hometown of St. John’s. His philosophical research focuses on community, love, evil, and where values come from, while his legal research centres on fairness and precedent in administrative and constitutional law. He is a member and director-at-large of the Foundation for Science and Reason in Society (SARIS).
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