A retired doctor makes the case for moving ahead on legal assisted dying

In his first post to our new blog, David Amies, a retired doctor and member of DWD Canada's Physicians Advisory Council, makes an impassioned case for why Canadian lawmakers shouldn't wait to implement the Supreme Court's landmark decision on assisted dying.

In February of this year the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down existing law that precluded doctors from providing the means for a very sick individual to bring his or her life to an end. The Supreme Court stayed its ruling for one year to give legislators adequate time to write new law. From February until mid-July nothing happened. Suddenly, one Friday afternoon, in the middle of the summer holiday season, the federal government announced the formation of a panel charged with obtaining the views of Canadians on the matter. The composition of the panel was telling. Two of the three members are known opponents of the idea of assisted dying and had appeared before the Supreme Court arguing strongly that the then present laws should not be changed.

Amies_2.jpgI am perplexed by the visceral opposition to the idea that the fully mentally competent person, in the grips of some dreadful disease, should not have the automatic right to say, “Enough, already. This is no fun and I want out!” Undoubtedly there must be safeguards to ensure that dying old Auntie Jane, sitting on a small fortune, is not persuaded by grasping heirs to end her life prematurely in order that they may buy new cars or go on expensive holidays with the proceeds of her estate. Similarly, long-term disabled persons must not be put under similar pressures because others see their lives as being less valuable than those of the fully abled. Organization of such safeguards should not be beyond the wit of the community.

Many in the medical profession, especially those who practise palliative care, are also opposed to physician assisted dying. Their argument appears to be that their job has always been to prolong life and not go about putting their patients to death. Of course, they are right as far as it goes. In recent decades, the medics and their patients have been taking part in a conspiracy which holds that doctors are supermen and women who can fix just about anything. Patients are keen to embrace such ideas for obvious reasons. Somehow, death is held to be a failure of technology. Everybody knows, although many are reluctant to acknowledge it, that life is finite and that all must die. It is my personal view that we come from oblivion and return to it. Others cling to the hope that there is life after death, but that is another argument and will not be prosecuted further here.

Surely, there comes a time when we are old and feeble, when we can no longer care adequately for ourselves, when we may be in intractable pain, when the quality of our lives is such that they are no longer worth much to us, a time when mere quantity takes second place to quality. Under such circumstances, ought we not have the right and the possibility to call “time” and to have someone else assist us to go off into that good night?

There is a beautiful passage in the last volume of the Cazalet Chronicle by British author Elizabeth Jane Howard, which tells of Oliver, a pet dog with terminal cancer, being taken to the vet to be put down. Oliver gazes at his owner out of his “brandy-snap eyes with complete trust and devotion” as the injection is given and until his body grows limp. At that point his owner weeps and begins to mourn.

Should we all not have the right to be treated as mercifully as Oliver, should we so desire? Should our political masters not ensure that we are provided with the means to end our days quietly and in peace when mere continuation of life has become intolerable?

Dr. David Amies is a retired doctor in Lethbridge, Alta.

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