Assisted-Suicide Slope Not So Slippery

Article excerpt

Gloria Taylor, a British Columbia ALS patient, insists it should be up to her to decide when the prospect of continued life is worse than the prospect of hastened death. Once she reaches that point, however, she may no longer be physically able to end her own life. So, she claims, it is her right to seek assistance in dying from a willing physician.

"What I want is to be able to die in a manner that is consistent with the way that I lived my life. I want to be able to exercise control and die with dignity and with my sense of self and personal integrity intact," she has explained. "I want to be able to experience my death as part of my life and part of my expression of that life. I do not want the manner of my death to undermine the values that I lived my life in accordance with..."

A great majority of Canadians supports Taylor's position. Similar support existed 19 years ago for Sue Rodriguez, another ALS patient who took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. Rodriguez lost, but only very narrowly, by a five-to-four vote.

Despite strong public support for decriminalization of physician-assisted suicide, it remains illegal in Canada. Attempting suicide ceased to be a crime in 1974; but aiding someone to commit suicide remains an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The voluntary request of the patient -- even when she is a competent adult, rational and fully informed -- is no defence.

In a dramatic decision, however, the British Columbia Supreme Court has ruled it is Taylor's constitutional right to decide for herself whether she wants a physician to assist her to die. The federal government is appealing this decision. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Canada will have to rule.

The essence of the government's case for upholding the current prohibition is that only a complete ban can offer adequate protection to vulnerable people. The government claims no set of safeguards, however stringent, can prevent serious harm. Advocates of patient autonomy argue, on the contrary, it is possible to implement careful safeguards, which would securely protect those who are vulnerable against the possibility of mistake or abuse.

Linda Ganzini, an Oregon psychiatrist who has done many studies of PAS in Oregon and in the Netherlands, argues the empirical evidence refutes claims that legalization will lead to a slippery slope. The data do not show any trend toward abuse of vulnerable groups of people -- such as the poor, the elderly and the disabled. …