The issue of euthanasia has reared its head again in Canada, this time in the Province of Quebec where a special committee of the National Assembly began public hearings recently. Monique David is one of about 300 people who will be making oral submissions to the ad hoc Committee Dying with Dignity. The following is her (slightly edited) testimony, in which she makes a plea, based in part on family experience, for respect for the sufferer at the end of life and for the natural process of dying.
On July 14, 2009, my father, having enjoyed reasonable health thus far, suffered a heart attack at the age of 86. He remained significantly weakened and his quality of life was noticeably diminished. Throughout the following six to seven months he often expressed his desire to die. My once optimistic father was experiencing what the Canadian Association of Palliative Care describes as the four main reasons patients want to die: pain and physical suffering; loss of control over their illness, their lives and their bodies; the desire to not be a burden; and depression and psychological distress linked to their illness.
Owing to his continuous requests to die his family doctor prescribed antidepressants, which took several months to take effect. Thankfully, his anxiety crises mostly disappeared as well as his discourse surrounding death and his perception of poisoning the lives of those around him. My family helped him understand that serving his needs was our way to reciprocate for all that he had generously given us throughout his life.
Gradually he came to realize and accept that he could continue to be useful, albeit less physically but more interpersonally. In fact, his presence, his listening, his smile and his attentive gaze continue to edify and positively transform those around him. I concluded that if we had succumbed to his dark, recurring desires, supported by a doctor or a medical system that legalizes euthanasia, my father would no longer be among us.
This personal experience convinced me that desires to die should be disarmed, not encouraged.
“I want to die” is a powerful sentence whose meaning begs to be questioned and understood, to enable us to allocate more collective will, expertise, creativity and research — specifically for psychological and physical relief of degenerative diseases.
Regarding physical pain, we urgently need more doctors trained in pain management and for this expertise to become an essential part of basic university medical training and/or of continuing medical education. Regarding psychological, social and spiritual suffering, palliative care medicine is a highly effective solution. This multidisciplinary approach addresses all dimensions of the person; additionally, it is inexpensive.
Compassion means to suffer with the patient and implies an acceptance of their suffering into our lives without adopting a defeatist or passive attitude. Compassion means to do all that we can to eliminate the pain within the individual and not kill the individual to eliminate the pain. A society that strives to be compassionate must support the sufferer and their support network, must continuously find or develop means of assistance and relief, encourage volunteering, promote family solidarity, and sustain physically and mentally disabled people.
At its heart, the debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide involves the legitimacy and the limits of human rights. The right to life is a natural right, the most fundamental of the individual, upon which all other rights are supported. The right to life and the right to death are intrinsic to the human being because life and death are inherent to the human condition.
Currently, there is much confusion; many accept euthanasia because they do not want their lives to be maintained artificially nor to become victims of excessive treatment. However, these practices can be legitimately refused by the patient or their family through the ethical perspective of the right to die within the limits of natural death.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates claim something else: the right to terminate life at the moment and in the way that the individual chooses — or that someone chooses for them.
Therefore, we should not use these terms to refer to the right to die (because this right is intrinsic), but rather to the right to be killed. This desire, expressed as a personal right, demands the intervention of a third party and a legal system that authorizes it. In other words, euthanasia and assisted suicide imply that doctors become agents of death and that society legally recognizes a criminal act to be lawful; or even more pernicious, a medical act.
Suicide has existed since the dawn of humanity. Those who have performed the act never requested society to justify their practice because, implicitly, the basic principle that individual freedom stops where the freedom of the other begins has always been understood.
We live in a society that places much importance on the body, on appearance and on having more than being. Illness ruptures this mirage; but exposure to suffering often opens a door, unknown until then, onto the internal richness of the human being and their spiritual dimension.
A society that justifies euthanasia and assisted suicide unites around a culture of death, fear and anguish and risks losing or suffocating opportunities to grow in humanity. Conversely, accompanying a person imprisoned by a degenerative disease or at the terminal stage of life demands courage, opening and an expansion of self; it provides occasion for one to place their life at the service of the other who is slowly losing theirs. However, endorsing the shortening of the sufferer’s life is to abet their death.
Quebecers are known for their compassion and solidarity. I sincerely hope that our respect for the sufferer, their life and their natural death will inspire us to carve the path towards creative and innovative solutions.
Monique David lives in Montreal.