Dr. David Amies: Sandra Martin's A Good Death is a timely and comprehensive must-read

The release of Sandra Martin's book A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices could not have come at a better time. Published in April 2016, the book arrived just as the topic of assisted dying began to dominate our media, our Parliament, and our minds. In this special blog post, Dr. David Amies reviews Martin's timely and necessary new book.

In her book, A Good Deathauthor and journalist Sandra Martin writes an excellent and comprehensive account of the story about medical aid in dying, as it is has come to be known in Canada, or physician-assisted suicide, the term more widely used elsewhere.

Martin traces the story from its origin in Switzerland in 1942 right up to the introduction of federal legislation in Canada earlier this year. Her account outlines the arrangements now in place in Belgium; the Netherlands; and the American states of California, Washington and Oregon; and she even finds time and space to mention the short-lived legislation in Australia's Northern Territory.

As the tale unfolds, the book introduces us to the heroes, heroines and even the adversaries who have played their parts in bringing medical aid in dying out of the shadows as a subject that can now be discussed freely and openly throughout the Western world. Martin introduces us to Derek Humphry, author of Final Exit and founder of the Hemlock Society; Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-born psychiatrist; Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement in the United Kingdom; Véronique Hivon, lawyer and member of the Québec National Assembly, whose efforts were instrumental in getting right-to-die legislation passed in the province; Sue Rodriguez, victim of Lou Gehrig's disease, whose Supreme Court challenge to the then-existing assisted suicide laws narrowly failed in 1993; and Kay Carter, whose successful application to the Supreme Court in 2015 led to the introduction of right-to-die legislation in Canada. These larger-than-life players in the story of assisted dying are joined by many others noteworthy patients, politicians and physicians in Martin's tremendously comprehensive book. The players who obstructed choice, on the other hand, could be said to include the Catholic Church; bioethicist Margaret Somerville; and Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

I was especially interested when Martin drew parallels between what's currently happening with assisted dying and the evolution of the laws surrounding therapeutic abortion. She mentions that it was once deemed unacceptable for a woman to have the right to choose control over her own fertility. Similarly, right-to-die advocates now fight for suffering individuals to have the right to exercise control over their own deaths. Equally noteworthy is the fact that the same organizations who now argue strenuously against right-to-die laws are the same ones that oppose abortion laws.

A Good Death comes with an extensive bibliography containing more than 70 references to books and articles, and more than 20 legal case citations. Martin’s writing style is crisp, clear and unemotional. This book is not an academic treatise — it is not meant to be. In spite of that, it would be an admirable resource for candidates for master’s or doctor’s degrees in the fields of public health, social science, anthropology or law, who have chosen to carry out research into some aspect of medical aid in dying. Within its pages they would find an admirable and complete record of the story to date. 

In summary, I strongly recommend this book and wish to thank Sandra Martin for her hard work in publishing it.

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

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