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Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) in Canada

Part 2 of thirteen parts

The lawsuit Carter v. Canada begins:

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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2011-NOV-14: Demonstration outside the Supreme Court of British Columbia courthouse:

Demonstrators with the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPCC) gathered in front of the court house. 2 They carried signs carrying messages such as:

  • "Assisted suicide: a recipe for elder abuse."

  • "Justice Smith: Parliament voted 528 to 59 against assisted suicide."

  • "Prevent elder abuse: no assisted suicide."

  • "Parliament spoke: assisted suicide bad for Canada."

John Coppard, 45, a veteran of military conflicts in Afghanistan and Bosnia, was one of the demonstrators. He had been diagnosed with brain cancer two years earlier. Reporter Petti Fong writes that he was "given bleak prospects" for long-term survival. He said:

"I’m really concerned about what’s going on inside that building right now. They’re playing with my life. They say they’re representing people who are irredeemably ill. They want to give us the right as they call it, the legal means to allow a physician to take our lives. Putting a glass of barbiturates in front of people who are going through what I’m going through is irresponsible." 2

He apparently felt very depressed when he received his diagnosis. He believes that if PAS had been available, he might have taken that option, and not be alive today. Now, he feels better and hopes for a cure.

His experience is a good indication of why PAS laws in other countries require people to undergo a psychiatric evaluation for depression before they are eligible to ask for PAS. This is required so that assistance in dying can be withheld from depressed patients. They can be treated to lift their depression instead.

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Contrasting the beliefs and approaches of the pro and anti PAS groups:

The EPCC demonstrators' signs highlighted a serious conflict over physician assisted suicide:

  • Those opposed to PAS appear to believe that if it is legalized, terminally ill persons who are in serious emotional and/or physical pain will have death forced upon them involuntarily, perhaps by a physician who has arbitrarily decided that it is time for their patient to die. The Coalition's fear-based signs ephasize that to force death prematurely on a sick person who actually wants to live is a form of elder abuse.

    In a Toronto Star video, Coppard's concluding words referred to his doctors. He said, fearfully:

    "if they had the legal power to kill me, I don't know who I could trust." 2

    Coppard echoed fear-based words by Dr. James Dobson -- founder and then president of the conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family. Over a decade earlier he commented on the right to die law that voters had passed in Oregon. Dr. Dobson wrote:

    "For the moment, if you are elderly and ill, Oregon is the last place you should want to be." 5

  • Those in favor of making PAS available for terminally ill persons who are in serious emotional and/or physical pain feel that the patients should be legally able to take the initiative by requesting help in committing suicide. Many supporters of PAS feel that to withhold that choice from the dying person who is in unbearable pain -- whether emotional or physical or both -- is itself a form of elder abuse.

So both sides in the conflict have determined that elder abuse is the core problem. One side feels that allowing terminally ill patients to choose an early exit from living is elder abuse. The other side feels that withholding such a choice is a form of elder abuse.

It may be possible that the two pro and anti PAS groups might be able to compromise. They could form a committee to interview dying patients who are in intractable pain to see whether the latter feel it is choice of PAS or the denial of PAS that constitutes elder abuse, Unfortunately, this would require dialogue and cooperation between the two sides. Dialogue is one procedure that is almost completely lacking, as it is in other ethical and civil rights matters like access to abortion, and equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons (LGBTs) including the right to marry the person that they love and to whom they are committed. There is little debate between the pro and anti-PAS groups; dialogue appears to be impossible.

Experience in other countries with PAS might be helpful. Their laws typically require:

  • That patients who are seeking PAS take the initiative by asking a physician for help in "Dying with Dignity."

  • One or more mental health professionals interview the patient, evaluating their mental health. If their wish to die is motivated by depression, they are refused assistance in dying and are rather treated for their depression.

  • That the initiative for PAS must always come from the patient, and never from the doctor.

  • That the patient must make repeated requests for PAS before assistance is granted.

  • That, when barbiturates or other medication are prescribed to cause death, the patient must freely take the pills by themselves.

If these precautions are written into a law enabling PAS in Canada, then claims that PAS is a form of elder abuse, and concern about not being able to trust one's doctors should evaporate. What would be left is the belief among many Jews, Christians, Muslims, and followers of other religions that it is God who decides when a person should die, not the person themselves. These religions -- particularly their conservative wings -- often consider suicide to be a very serious sin.

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2011-NOV-14: The trial commenced in the British Columbia Supreme Court:

The trial began with two affidavits. One was by Peter Fenker, 71, who died of ALS earlier in 2011-NOV before he was able to appear in court. The other was by his wife, Grace Fenker, who described her husband's last four days in hospital.

His affidavit described how he had tried to kill himself with a shotgun, but wanted a better way. He said:

"I would like my life to end in a dignified way, with the help of a doctor, and in a way that is not painful for my family. ... My body belongs to me and it always will. The government shouldn’t be able to tell me what I can do with my body."

In her affidavit, she described her husbands death in agony as his body became so weak that the was unable to support his internal organs and his body turned purple.

For the defendants, Donnaree Nygard representing Justice Canada testified:

"This is an emotional case. Some of the stories you will read and hear are heart wrenching, intended to evoke two strong emotions — the deepest sympathy for those who find themselves in difficult situations and an apprehension that someday we may find ourselves in similar circumstances. That does not mean we should euthanize people or assist people to kill themselves. The reason for that are there are other individuals who will be put at risk." 2

The word "will" in her final sentence is strange. Unless she believes that a law enabling PAS is inevitable, the word "would" seems like a better fit.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
  1. Petti Fong, "Landmark case renews debate on right to die," The Toronto Star, 2011-NOV-13, at:
  2. Petti Fong, "Dying man’s last wishes are heard as right-to-die challenge begins," The Toronto Star, 2011-NOV-15, at:
  3. "Vancouver right to die case," video, The Toronto Star, 2011-NOV-14, at:
  4. The  Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has a web site at: Their address is: Box 25033, London, ON Canada, N6C 6A8. Their Email address is Toll free phone number is: 1-877-439-3348.
  5. James Dobson, "Dr. Dobson's Study: January 1998."

Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Assisted Suicide > Canada > here

or: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Suicide menu > Assisted Suicide> Canada > here

Copyright © 2011 to 2016, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2011-NOV-15
Latest update: 2016-FEB-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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