Debating the Merits of Assisted Suicide

New polls in Manitoba reveal public support for assisted suicide and the debate is making headlines throughout the country. Additionally, there have been several appeals to grant this right in recent years, one of which the Supreme Court of Canada will rule on later this year. Indeed, advancements in healthcare and changes in societal values since the Rodriguez decision twenty years ago, at which point the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional doctor-assisted suicide, have been plenty and renewed inquiry is defensible.

Today, individuals with terminal illnesses stand a greater chance of living much longer than before. Importantly, though, it is not mandatory for them to accept provisions–refusing treatment, similar to suicide, is legal. By extension, assisted suicide, especially for those suffering without possibility of recovery, seems reasonable.

In any case, introducing the right of assisted suicide to the Canadian legal system deserves sincere scrutiny and consideration. Determining whether it is a legal procedure, as opposed to murder, for instance, requires specific determinants that ensure judicious use.  Designing and implementing the necessary regulations will, therefore, likely take a considerable amount of time, not to mention that the entire process will be controversial.

Canadians have supported euthanasia and assisted suicide for decades and several individuals and groups have pressed for its legalization. This month, for instance, polls showed that roughly 63 per cent of Manitobans support assisted suicide and a nationwide survey taken last year revealed that 68 per cent of Canadians support it. The Province of Quebec is currently debating legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide and, in 2012, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that assisted suicide was a right. Judges in British Columbia’s appeal court overturned this ruling in 2013 however, fearing that its acceptance could put some vulnerable people at risk and devalue human life.

On the other hand, several American states and European countries have passed legislation allowing individuals to exercise their right to die, albeit with varying stipulations. Furthermore, several individuals travel to countries where assisted suicide is legal as a means of ending their life peacefully. While these regions have experienced increasing numbers of assisted suicides, the totals remain dramatically low. For example, these methods only accounted for 2.35 deaths per 1,000 in Oregon in 2012 and the total rose from 41 to 53 in the Netherlands between 2003 and 2011.

Advances in healthcare and medicine provide terminal individuals with additional options to prolong their life. However, this can be emotionally burdensome, not to mention that it has a cost. In 2010, CBS ran a story titled, “The Cost of Dying,” which reported that 20-30 per cent of the $55 billion in medical expenditures on those in their final months had no meaningful impact on their overall livelihood. As the population ages, ailments and the medical costs associated with them are sometimes too onerous. For those who would rather end their life peacefully, as opposed to suffering, assisted suicide is a viable alternative.

Canadians are asking tough questions and policymakers can no longer avoid them. Indeed, determining whether assisted suicide fits Canada’s values is paramount, however, with proper regulations and sound methods of ensuring physicians and patients follow them, it could be beneficial. The debate will continue long after the Supreme Court rules on the matter, yet, Canadians obviously want an answer and the majority want to see change.

Rachel Lowe is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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