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Euthanasia in Canada

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Euthanasia in Canada
There is considerable debate today, both among the public and the politicians, about euthanasia. While the governmnt is hesitatant to venture into morals and ethics, it appears that euthanasia is gaining more press coverage, in light of the Sue Rodriguez and Robert Latimer cases. Indeed, the issue is difficult to resolve, and despite few advances, the government has enacted penalties in the Criminal Code to punish assisted suicide. Without reservation, euthanasia is illegal in Canada. Anincreasing number of people are turning to doctor-assisted suicide. As a result of a more liberal political arena, more people are agreeing that some form of euthanasia must be acceptable in specific circumstances. Politicians, and the courts, claim that the country is not yet ready for such a climate. The characterization of pro-euthanasia advocates by their counterparts as selfish, taking the easy way out, diserespectful of life, and challenging human dignity is misconstrued. Pro-euthanasia groups advocate self-dignity, personal choice, economic well-being, happiness, family support, and individual rights. The word euthanasia simply means good death, but has come to mean causing death with intent, whether by doing something (commission), or by omitting something(omission). Euphemisms of the pro-euthanasia movement, include "right to die", and "death with dignity". The term "passive euthanasia" is often applied to the withdrawal of useless treatment thatonly prolonging the dying of a person. This needs to be differentiated from withdrawing of something that is actually keeping them alive, the withdrawl of which actually causes their death. It has been pointed out that the pro- life lobby will be split and discredited if there is an insistence by some that all technological means must be used whenever possible to prolong life. No ethical doctor insists on the use of burdensome, ineffective of futile measure, commonly called 'disproportionate', when refused by the patient or family. Doctors must necessarily in all patients discontinue curative or therapeutic efforts at the time when death is imminent and inevitable. Patients may request all measures to be attempted if they desire but it cannot be demanded that life always be prolonged as much as possible, without fuelling the "right to die" movement.

Allowing death to occur when the patient specifically refuses further therapy is to acknowledge the natural limit of autonomy. This does not extend to refusal of basic care and does not mean the withdrawal of comfort measures. In 1991, the BC Royal Commission concluded that "the person who is dying should have the right to determine the form and time of death...There is a right to commit suicide, and a physician should be allowed to assist a person who chooses to exercise that right." The Right to Die Society in Canada, based in Victoria, "Affirms the right of any mature individual who is chroniclally or terminally ill to choose the time, place, and means of his or her death. Suicide and euthanasia are a legitimate response to the declining quality of life which many individuals experience as they growq older, or whicfh they suffer as a result of accidents or congential disabilities."

This society actively lobbies politically for active euthanasia, and provides counselling to every member who wishes to know about assistance- in-dying. Similarly, the Canadian Medical Association has run a series ofarticles on euthanasia. Eike Kluge, the former CMA ethicist, is outspokenly pro-euthanasia. A recent article published as a discussion article stated, "What a strange world we live in, that we are kinder to our animals than we are to human beings." His colleague, Ethics Committee Chairman, Dr. Arthur Parsons, asked "Who is going to get into the lifeboat? Is it better to keep severely retarded person alive, or spend your tight resources on bypass surgery for a father of four?" This brings up two important issues, the first, that euthanasia is still used for animals, despite being called "putting to sleep", and secondly, the issue of money and the costliness of keeping a person alive. Research shows that the most expensive term of care for a patient is the final six months prior to their deaths. The financial burden for a seemingly hopeless case is unbearable, not just for the family, but for the patient as well. The patient, in their last few days, should not have to worry about being a financial burden, but the truth is, healthcare is expensive. As Dr. Parsons argued, it may be better to supply those crucial healthcare dollars to the father of four who requires surgery because the chances of success are phenomenally better than the comatose or terminally ill patient.

Current euthanasia advocates have erealized that active euthanasia is too difficult to push through Parliament. They have elected to go through assisted suicide which opens the door to active euthanasia. Svend Robinson has proposed Bill C385 which would amend the Criminal Code to allow doctors to assist in the suicide of a patient who is terminal and requests this. In 1972, suicide was decriminalized in Canada, keeping with the understandingthat suicide is not a rational act and these people need help, not incarceration if the suicide attempt was unsuccessful. The BC Commission into health care costs stated that suicide is a right and that physicians should be empowered to assist patients who choose to exercise that right. As it stands now, Section 241 of the Criminal Code states that it is illegal to counsel or assist someone to commit suicide. Section 14 presently reads "no person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him". These laws exist to protect the vulnerable, and people open to coercion. It also recognizes that suicidee is not a rational act, being an act of desperation and depression out of hopelessness and helplessness. Because something is not illegal does not make it a right. In other words, your right to suicide is my obligation to assist your suicide. This obligation clearly does not exist as Justice Melvin found in the Sue Rodriguez case. Sue Rodriguez, a 42 year old woman who has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the section of the Criminal Code that makes aiding suicide illegal. A graphic article published in The Globe and Mail, September 1992, written by John Hofsess, the director of the right to Die Society, describes her plight with this progressively paralysing disease as "condemned to die". Her future is described as a "helpless, drooling, physically atrophied captive of this disease, dependent on other people and machines for an ever attenuated form of mere biological exsistence". Her lawyers argued that Section 241 of the Criminal Code, which makes it an offence to assist aqnyone to commit suicide, violates Section 7 of the Charter of Rights, which guaratntees liberty and security of the person. he Justices stressed the significant difference between palliative care nad physician-assisted suicide, saying Rodriguez failed to show her right to fundamental justice is infringed by the existing criminal law. University of Manitoba law professor Barney Sneiderman says charges are rarely laid because the Crown recognizes that juries generally sympathize with doctors who end the agony of dying patients. Some doctors fear that even providing a patient with the means to commit suicide, for example, prescribing enough pills that might be hoarded and used for an overdose, would constitute aiding or abetting the action of euthanasia. But Sneiderman argues that the courts would likely require prosectors to prove intent. A doctor might suspect a patient was hording pills, but because the ipills were not prescribed for thepurpose of aiding a suicide, the doctor would probably have a good defence. For illustration, Sneiderman says an Edmonton doctor was charged under Section 217, saying a person has a legal duty to perform an act if not doing it would endanger life, and Section 219, which defines criminal negligence and includes both acts and omissions that wou Justices Proudfoot and Hollinrake, both agreed with Justice McEarchern, the sole dissenter, that the legality of physician-assisted suicide is a matter for Parliament to decide.

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