It seems that our great neighbor to the North, Canada, has beaten the U.S. to the punch one again when it comes to one of my favoirte issues.
On the drive over from snowy New Hampshire to relatively snowless Vermont and Montreal, I heard this story on the radio.
The Canadian Suprime Court has given its Parliament only a year to craft acceptable right to die legilation.
This is an issue I've cared about nearly as much as gay marriage.
Canada beat U.S. to the punch to gay marriage (although we seem to be catching up), and now it appears Canada is going to leave us in the rear view mirror on this vital issue as well. For anyone with a drop of libertarian blood, for anyone who claims to speak seriously about individual rights, what could be more important than the right to die with dignity?
Apparently we in the U.S. are way behind the rest of the civilized world.
We managed barely more than 50 votes in the New Hamphshire legislature last year on a bill that amounted to a very small step in the right direction, and now the three biggest right to die advocates (Rep. Joel Winters, Rep. Tim O'Flaherty, and I) are all gone.
Check out this good news from Canada, and never give up!
How Canada’s Right-to-Die Ruling Could Boost Movement in U.S.
Advocates say Supreme Court ruling could give momentum to U.S. states considering so-called 'death with dignity' bills
The Canadian Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision Friday that will allow physicians to provide life-ending medication to terminally ill patients.
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The court ruled in part that banning a right to die in fact “deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable.”
The groundbreaking 9-0 decision, which makes Canada one of just a handful of states to allow some form of “aid in dying,” comes as states in the U.S. consider allowing the practice for mentally competent patients with terminal illness. So-called death with dignity advocates said Friday that the decision by the U.S.’s northern neighbor could increase momentum across the border.
“I think it will have a significant impact in the U.S.,” says Barbara Coombs-Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, a death with dignity advocacy group. “This isn’t happening in a far-off country. It sends a strong message throughout the continent.”
The “aid in dying” movements in Canada and the U.S. have similar histories. Both began around the late 1980s and early 1990s, and both have tried to achieve policy reforms through the courts and at the state or provincial level. But Friday’s Canadian court decision, which allows the practice nationwide, is a significant breakthrough for death with dignity advocates in Canada. It remains an unlikely scenario in the U.S., however, where reforms will likely come at a state level.
Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center in the U.S., says she believes the court’s decision “will have a tremendous positive effect on a state-by-state level,” but that policy changes will continue to happen outside of Washington. The issue hasn’t gained much traction in Congress, and the Supreme Court isn’t likely to take up the issue anytime soon.
But there is considerable progress at the state level.
End-of-life practices are legal in Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Vermont, while legislation has been introduced in California, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia. Coombs-Lee says it’s being considered in some form in 25 states.
The movement began making significant strides thanks to the widely publicized story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old newlywed with brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon, which is just one of five states that allow terminally ill patients to obtain life-ending medication.
One state that aid-in-dying advocates are currently watching closely is New York, where terminally ill patients recently filed a lawsuit that would allow the practice. State lawmakers are also reportedlyconsidering introducing a death with dignity bill. But any sort of movement in U.S. federal courts like what happened in Canada will likely only occur once there’s more progress at the state level.
“I think a federal constitutional protection could be acknowledged at some point,” says Coombs-Lee, “but only after there is already a critical mass of states where it is already authorized.”
The Canadian decision struck down laws that banned doctors from participating in ending a patient’s life and reversed an earlier Supreme Court ruling, saying that current bans violated rights of life, liberty and security as protected by the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Last year, Quebec passed right-to-die legislation, making it the only Canadian province to allow the practice.
A LESS CRUEL DEATH
Will People Go to Canada to Die?
Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously found a “right to die” in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Canadian Bill of Rights). Under the ruling, the Canadian government now has 12 months to create a legal regime that allows patients suffering from grievous and irremediable medical conditions the right to end their lives with a doctor’s assistance.
It is arguably one of the most important decisions in the history of Canadian jurisprudence – but its impact in the United States is likely to be limited.
As in most “right to die” cases, the facts in Carter v. Canada are grim. The initial plaintiffs were Gloria Taylor, who suffered from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Kay Carter, who suffered from degenerative spinal stenosis. Both are now deceased.
ALS is extremely rare, affecting only about 1 out of every 50,000 people per year. (To put this figure in perspective: That would equate roughly to one ALS sufferer out of the entire Yankee Stadium audience that watched Gehrig declare, on July 4, 1939, that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”) But sufferers of the disease have played an outsized role in Canadian right-to-die jurisprudence: In the early 1990s, an ALS-afflicted British Columbia woman named Sue Rodriguez launched a constitutional challenge against the ban on physician-assisted suicide. That litigation ended with a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the prohibition.
The Rodriguez decision had been the law of the land in Canada for more than 20 years — until last week.
The slow, steady, agonizing manner by which ALS kills its victims helps explain why sufferers of this disease have been disproportionately prominent in the struggle for access to physician-assisted suicide.
As muscles degenerate during the initial stages of ALS, patients gradually lose the ability to initiate voluntary movement. After three or four years, bowel functions, eye movement and lung operation typically begin to fail, too — until such time as the patient dies by suffocation. During all this, brain and sensory function typically is unimpeded, so the patient experiences all of these horrors helplessly, but lucidly. It is not surprising that some ALS patients want to be spared these creeping horrors, and seek a way to die with dignity at a time of their own choosing.
It is this combination of mental competency with complete physical helplessness that makes ALS a grimly ideal case study for assisted-suicide proponents: Such patients can provide informed consent to their own death, but lack the means to accomplish the task on their own.
Taylor died peacefully from an acute bacterial infection in 2012 before her ALS proceeded to its final deadly phase. She was, in a morbid sense, “lucky.” As I havewritten elsewhere, her story shows how laws against physician-assisted suicide turn the act of dying into a bioethical lottery: Patients in the advanced stages of terrible diseases have to rely on some random pathogen to perform the mercy that a well-regulated medical corps should make available to us, if we wish it.
“They suffer from the knowledge that they lack the ability to bring a peaceful end to their lives.”
Last week’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling is persuasive precisely because it poignantly captures the wrenching dilemma faced by people who suffer from degenerative conditions such as ALS. The Court wrote that Taylor was left with the cruel choice “between killing herself while she was still physically capable of doing so, or giving up the ability to exercise any control over the manner and timing of her death.”
The Court continued, “[Other] witnesses described the progression of degenerative illnesses like motor neuron diseases or Huntington’s disease, while others described the agony of treatment and the fear of a gruesome death from advanced-stage cancer. Yet running through the evidence of all the witnesses is a constant theme — that they suffer from the knowledge that they lack the ability to bring a peaceful end to their lives at a time and in a manner of their own choosing.”
“Some [witnesses] describe how they had considered seeking out the traditional modes of suicide but found that choice, too, repugnant,” the Justices added.
By way of example, they quote one witness to the effect that “I was going to blow my head off. I have a gun and I seriously considered doing it. I decided that I could not do that to my family. It would be horrible to put them through something like that. I want a better choice than that.”
Legal developments in the United States contributed indirectly to this important moment in Canadian constitutional law. For many years, opponents of physician-assisted suicide have warned that patients may request to die at a moment of psychological weakness; or that they will overlook the possibility that their remaining time on earth will have meaning beyond that which they presently can imagine. (One example they might cite in this regard is Stephen Hawking, who suffers from a slow-progressing form of ALS.)