Dr. David Amies: The right-to-die movement continues to grow despite strong resistance

Buoyed by the precedents set by places that have legalized assisted dying, an increasing number of individuals are making moves to implement similar legislation in their own backyards. In his latest blog post, Dr. David Amies looks at current efforts in New Zealand and the states of Michigan and Colorado, and muses about a right-to-die movement that continues to grow in the face of staunch resistance.

The states of Michigan and Colorado may be about to join the small but growing number of places that allow people to obtain the help of a physician in ending their lives. At the same time, a rather stuttering process is currently taking place in New Zealand and looks likely to fail again.

Two representatives in Michigan have introduced a Death with Dignity bill. If they are successful and the act comes into law, terminally ill patients will be able to obtain a prescription for lethal drugs which would allow them to die when they choose. The act contains crucial safeguards. Doctors would be obliged to evaluate the mental health of such patients. Two witnesses would be required to validate their decision and finally, the patients would have to self-administer the drugs.

Larry T. Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, made the following observations: “It is no coincidence that every effort to block death with dignity legislation is led by churches and religious organizations, who want to see their specific beliefs imposed on others as law. No one should be forced to live or die according to someone else’s beliefs. We’re not asking lawmakers to grant a personal stamp of approval on the decision to end one’s life. We’re simply asking them to respect a terminally ill individual’s right to make the choice that’s best for them.”

His remarks will strike a chord with those of us in Canada, who have been advocating for similar legislation. We can only hope that the lawmakers of Michigan listen more closely to the pleas of the terminally ill than to those of the representatives of the religious community, whose arguments will be familiar to Canadians: the slippery slope, the possible coercion by venal relatives anxious to inherit and the notions about pre-empting the Almighty.

Election issue

People in the State of Colorado will get the chance to decide at the general election in November whether or not to legalize physician-assisted dying for terminally ill patients. A proposal on the ballot paper would allow patients to obtain lethal drugs if they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and are deemed to be of sound mind. They would have to self-administer the medication, and it would be necessary for two licensed physicians to confirm the diagnosis and to discuss all other possible treatment options.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog to learn that the Colorado Catholic Conference has derided the ballot question calling it “flawed logic” because the government would be encouraging some people to commit suicide while trying to prevent it in others. Their objections have echoes of the thoughts of Canada's federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. She appeared to conflate the desire of the terminally ill to bring their lives to an end with the very high rate of suicide of young, indigenous people on reserves, while she was drafting the laws passed by our parliament earlier this year.  

(It is also worth adding that a 2015 Gallup poll on assisted dying conducted across the United States found that 68 per cent of the respondents were in favour of physician-assisted dying legislation.)

A growing movement

An MP in New Zealand has drawn up a private member’s assisted dying bill which he hopes to have discussed by the house in the near future. If he is successful, this bill will represent the fourth attempt to have such legislation enacted. A similar bill was defeated in 1995 by a margin of 61 to 29. In 2003, another bill lost by 60 to 58. In 2012, the third attempt was withdrawn because it was deemed to be too contentious a matter for discussion during an election year. The current proposal and the three previous ones are all very similar and reminiscent of other legislation in Europe and the United States. All of these attempts have been furiously resisted by church organizations and by some representatives of the disabled community. The usual slippery slope arguments have been trotted out. Opponents have claimed that adequate palliative care renders such legislation unnecessary. At the time of writing, it is not certain what will eventuate in New Zealand, but it is evident that those in favour of such legislation are working hard to achieve their aims. 

Slowly, but surely, dying with dignity movements worldwide are making progress against the forces of reaction. Members of the public appear to be willing to discuss death and to insist on the right to have a measure of control. They are trying to wrest power from the physicians, lawyers and clerics, and decide for themselves whether a life, seriously blighted by pain, disability and anguish is worth living in all cases. It looks as if more and more people want the option to decide for themselves. No one disputes that advances in medicine and in palliative care mean that suffering can be better controlled. But, as yet, these advances do not yet provide everyone with the measure of ease they want. Consequently, the interest in having a way out grows.

Dr. David Amies is a retired doctor in Lethbridge, Alta., and a member of DWD Canada's Physicians Advisory Council.

(Header Credit: CGP Grey/Flickr)

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