The Body is Not a Jail: A Case for the Legalization of Assisted Suicide in Canada

By Heather Graham

Screen shot 2021-07-13 at 11.17.47 PM.pngImage source: Flickr.

In 1992 Sue Rodriguez, a British Columbian woman, fought to the higher echelons of the legal system, the Supreme Court of Canada: for her right to assistance to commit suicide.  In a court case that ensued for over 2 years, Rodriguez was eventually denied her request, her right to die with dignity. In a 5-4 split the Supreme Court justices dismissed her case of discrimination against her right to life, liberty, and security of the person (S.7 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), based on state justice fundamentals to protect vulnerable people and uphold the sanctity of life (S. 241b).(Malloy, 1) In the case of terminal illness, the ability to end ones life should be the entitlement and free will of the patient to choose, without risking criminal persecution for auxiliary personnel, regardless of Religious affiliation, and be sanctioned by legal processes.

According to The Centre for Suicide Prevention suicide was decriminalized in 1972, however, in the case of assisted suicide there remains criminal responsibility for those who aid a person in taking his or her own life.(Unknown, 2) Does a person have the right to control his or her own fate, and if so, providing there is an inability to exercise that choice shouldn't that person be entitled to assistance?  If the fundamentals of the justice system and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms propose to protect vulnerable people and uphold the sanctity of life at a societal level, given that it denied Rodriguez's case, it can be argued that the Government can inherently dictate a person's free will. A Democracy is the equal say of each member of the population, to contribute to overall governance. When it comes to the individual rights of a terminal patient a person should be entitled, with some stipulations, to end his or her life with the necessary assistance, without the persecution of the people who assist that person in executing his or her final wishes. 

A moral argument against the legalization of assisted suicide and an individuals ability to chose and instigate his or her death, is the Religious belief that God, or a theistic figure creates the sanctity of life and dictates when it begins and when it ends. This dogma ultimately contributes to the discussion of whether or not one can exercise the ability to choose their own right to live, while failing to consider ones own freedom of choice.  The religion argument is a bi-product of the underlying argument juxtaposing government and free will; religion is a personal-freedom and can be followed however strictly that practitioner so chooses, but the beliefs of Religion cannot dictate the legal system and should not be blanketed across society as a whole. Though for some it does influence the personal ethics towards an unnatural death, it is an individual's choice that should not be applied unanimously to all people, categorizing them into one religious sector.  In 2001, 16.5% of Canadian's identified as "No Religious Affiliation", up 12.6% from 1991, identifying an increasing segment of the population that does not believe in a God-figure and cannot be governed with such a belief.(StatsCan, 3) Religion is an individual freedom, and should not be used to apply moral values to the population as a whole.

An ethical argument against assisted suicide is the unnatural early loss of a loved one, initiating a premature bereavement process causing trauma for those left behind. The argument that a terminally ill patient should spend each remaining moment surrounded by family and friends is an argument based on love, memories, history, future, and the loss of all those things. But in the context of terminal illness, at what point are you actually loosing someone? Assisted suicide is assisted because it occurs at a point where a person does not have the capacity, either physically, mentally, or both, to take his or her own life. At that point, hasn't a loss already occurred? To prolong the inevitable is to draw out the process of loss. While that person may have moments of lucidity, or even maintain full consciousness, they deserve the right and choice to have their own life if their body or mind is failing them. The body is not a jail; denial does not refute the reality. The process of loss begins with the diagnosis. It is not a spontaneous event.

To deny a person the choice to die, forcing them to live out the end of their sickness in pain and humiliation, is to take away their dignity. Not providing alternatives, forcing a person to exist in their body against their will imposes inhumane suffering on that person. As a first world country, Canadian citizens are habituated to a certain quality of life: social systems allow a standard of living providing food, safety, shelter, and healthcare. In 1943 Professor Abraham Maslow published A Theory of Human Motivation in which he developed his 'hierarchy of needs'. He determined that the most elementary needs of any human are physiological, followed by safety, including health.(Maslow, 4) When a person's health is lost, and healthcare cannot rectify the disease, the path to being a fulfilled person within a socially normalized context becomes disconnected. To subject the patient to a decreased quality of life is to take away the self-actualization he or she may once have had.

To allow a person to die with dignity will be to provide them with a process by which they can map their own path to death. Providing concrete stipulations and clauses will remove potential abuse of the system by people who stand a chance of recovery, and doctors lacking ethics in the treatment of their patients. Verification of a terminal diagnosis by more than one healthcare provider, a legal will and testament stating the desire to die, mandatory witnesses verifying the patients will, and the right to reverse the decision up until the administering of the lethal toxin will all prevent false or misconstrued intentions to die.

Assisted suicide is not an easy subject, it means dealing with final and absolute loss; confronting the frailty of human life. But assisted suicide is not the tragedy; it is the lesser of two evils. Denying death from those who desire it, or persecuting those who assist in the act of it, is not the end to the cause. If a person has the right to exercise his or her own free will, Religion remains a personal freedom, and a legal structure can be established, there is no reason assisted suicide should remain illegal. 

(1) Anne Malloy, The Sue Rodriguez Case, Abilities Magazine, Winter Edition 1993-1994. 

(2) Author Unknown, Questions about Suicide, Centre for Suicide Prevention, Web, 31 May 2011.

(3) Statistics Canada, Religion (95A) Age Groups (7A) and Sex (3) for Population, for Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 1991 and 2001 Censuses - 20% Sample Data, Web, 31 May 2011.

(4) Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, Vol. 50, NO. 4, pp. 370-396. Web, 31 May 2011.



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