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Assisted suicide

By Mary Deutscher


My colleague Sandra Kary and I once came up with a fantastic idea for a euthanasia greeting card. Granted it was completely morbid, but sometimes morbid is what you need when you have been reading about euthanasia for too long. “Happy Death Day,” the card would read with a picture of a stone falling into a pond and miraculously causing no ripples. “May your actions today have no lasting effects.”

I realize Sandra shared this image with the Prairie Messenger readership several months ago, but in the wake of Brittany Maynard’s death, I felt it was worth sharing again.

Maynard’s death has presented us with a compelling story. She was a young, competent, independent, terminally ill woman who wanted to leave this world on her own terms. Compassion & Choices, a pro-euthanasia advocacy group in the United States, presented a perfect image of Maynard and asked the world to have pity on her and respect her decision to end her life. After all, Maynard wasn’t hurting anyone, so who are we to judge her choice?

The problem with this picture is that it imagines a person’s death can be an isolated event, cut off from the rest of society. However, human beings are relational in everything we do. No decision can be made free of the influence of those around us, and no decision can be executed without affecting the communities in which we live. So even if I were to accept that Maynard’s death was free of coercion, I would never be able to believe that the widespread acceptance of assisted suicide would not have a lasting effect on the fabric of our society.

Take, for example, the impact that legalized assisted suicide has on persons who are contemplating suicide. If suicide is acceptable in some cases, it is difficult to see why it would be unacceptable in other cases, especially if the only justification needed is an appeal to personal autonomy. If a terminally ill patient can exercise his or her autonomy without having an impact on others, why can’t a depressed person? Surely both are suffering, so why don’t both deserve the same response?

As advocates against euthanasia such as Margaret Somerville would say, when suicide becomes an acceptable response to life’s problems, it is impossible to limit it to only certain situations. Indeed, this is the issue facing the Supreme Court of Canada in the Carter case as it decides whether or not Canadians have a right to suicide. If the court decides that suicide is a right to which all Canadians are entitled, this will completely undermine the commitment we have made to suicide prevention programs. We will have to ask ourselves: Why are we trying to prevent people from exercising their rights? How should we respond to people who are contemplating suicide?

The legalization of physician-assisted suicide is particularly devastating because not only does it normalize suicide, it also dramatically alters the medical profession. When this practice is legalized, it turns our doctors from healers into killers. Doctors who do not want to participate in assisted suicide will face tremendous pressure to refer their patients, who they are committed to accompanying, to someone who is not committed to protecting life. One cannot help but wonder what type of doctor would want to serve as judge, jury and executioner for his or her patients.

Further, when doctors have permission to kill their patients, it erodes the trust their patients place in them. The healthcare system is already a challenging environment for most people, many of whom question their doctor’s expertise. For example, we have all heard stories about doctors who overprescribe anti-depressants without searching for the deeper cause of their patient’s unhappiness.

It is not a stretch of the imagination to think that doctors would prescribe suicide pills to patients who are in need of deeper care.

In Oregon where physician-assisted suicide has been legal since 1997, the statistics support this conjecture. Of the 71 persons who died from physician-assisted suicide in 2013, only two were referred for a formal psychiatric or psychological evaluation. That means that at least 69 people told their physician “I want to die” and were handed a lethal drug without a psychiatric consult. This is a terrifying statistic for anyone who has ever loved someone with a mental illness.

I realize that last month I promised to take a break from writing about euthanasia and assisted suicide for awhile, but I was surprised by how deeply saddened I was when I learned of Maynard’s death. I am sorry that such a vibrant woman could see no hope in her future, and I am devastated to think that there are people who are rejoicing in her death.

We have a lot of work to do to help those who are contemplating suicide, not only for their sake but for ours as well. Where there is life, no matter how short, we should be able to come together to find hope.

Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.