Dr. David Amies: 'Milquetoast' assisted dying bill is a great pity

In his latest blog post for the Dying With Dignity Canada blog, Dr. David Amies shares his disillusionment with the Liberals' recently tabled bill on physician-assisted dying.

They say that life is one long process of disillusionment. So, at the age of 81, I have no right to be either disappointed or angered by the assisted dying bill tabled in the House of Commons on Thursday. Yet, I was.

Surely, no one was surprised when "nasty" Stephen kicked the issue into the long grass last year. That kind of stuff was not his cup of tea. Came October and White Knight, St. Justin entered the lists on his prancing steed, promising to write new legislation just as quickly as he could. Some Dying With Dignity Canada supporters pricked up our ears and said, “A Daniel has come among us!” In double quick time, a joint Parliamentary committee was set up, extensive hearings undertaken, scores of witnesses with skin in the game, gave evidence both for and against and a long and thoughtful report was issued and delivered to Parliament.

That report raised our hopes considerably. Among other things it suggested that mandatory waiting periods serve no purpose; that consideration should be given to requests from emancipated minors; advanced directives were recommended for acceptance and above all, those with serious mental health issues could be considered as candidates for medical aid in dying.

Comes the draft bill and we see that the joint Parliamentary committee was merely a charade — smoke and mirrors if you prefer. St. Justin turns out to be “all hat and no cattle” as they say in Texas, “no bottle” as they say Down Under or best of all, “… sound and fury signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Shakespeare)

It very much looks as if the forces of the right wing and the anti-euthanasia brigade have got at him and that he has had an attack of cold feet.

'A mixture of arrogance and ignorance'

The actual bill before Parliament has been composed with a mixture of arrogance and ignorance. One of its provisions is that a patient requesting assisted death should endure a 15-day period of reflection! Do the functionaries who have drafted this bill consider that patients desirous of ending their lives act on a whim? Do they think that such patients snap their fingers and summon the ward nurse and tell her to inform the doctor that they’ve had enough and would like to be put down tomorrow? How arrogant is that? Surely, a Boy Scout with a first-aid certificate would work out that a grievously suffering individual, anxious to end his or her life, will have given the matter a great deal of thought and that an arbitrary waiting period merely compounds their anguish.

Whatever can be the reason for excluding patients with severe mental health issues from the provisions of the proposed bill? Have the people behind it conflated mental disease with idiocy or lunacy? If so, how ignorant is that? Five minutes research would reveal that many prominent and highly successful people have laboured under the curse of bipolar disease. They will be the first to acknowledge that at times they did not know which way was up but for the most part they were perfectly capable of making significant decisions. Three of my favourite examples of such persons are Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf and Stephen Fry. Churchill managed to fight off the Nazis for a couple of years before the Americans came to assist; Virginia Woolf changed the way that English writers viewed and composed the novel and Stephen Fry has had a glittering career in comedy and on television. Idiots or lunatics they were not.

Exclusion of advanced requests for assisted dying

The decision to exclude advanced directives from consideration will result in a good deal of unnecessary anguish. Surely, a person in the early stages of dementia should have the right to a medically assisted death when their disease has reached a certain pre-determined stage: for example, when they no longer can recognize their friends and family. Of course, by that time they would be in no position either to request an early death or to decide on its merits. The proposed bill turns its back on them.

It is also very hard on those suffering from the slow and inevitable deterioration brought about by certain neurological conditions. We know that persons made helpless by multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may well live on for several years unable to feed themselves, attend to their personal hygiene, to speak and even to breathe unaided. And yet, because no one can say whether or not their deaths of imminent, they are doomed to mere and unwelcome existence. That is not a prospect that I would fancy. Incidentally, such people will have a hard time making their requests in writing, one of the provisions of the proposed new law.

It seems to me that our political masters have missed a golden opportunity to write compassionate, sensible and considered legislation on the subject of medical aid in dying. They have resiled from boldness and taken refuge in mean-spirited caution — veritable milquetoast — and I think that is a great pity.

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

(Header photo: Government of Canada/YouTube)

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