On October 15th , the Supreme Court of Canada began hearing an appeal by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association on assisted suicide. Since then various National Post columnists have shared their views on the topic.
Three key words tend to drive supporters of assisted suicide: control, autonomy and dignity. I do wish, however, that writers would take better care in defining their understanding of these concepts; if they did we would probably realize that the supporters and opponents are not that far apart in their views. After all, who does not wish to have control over his or her life and to exercise self-determination? And who would not agree when asked: Do you want to die with dignity?
The dividing line is the degree to which we believe we can trespass on another life. For some, this boundary exists since the dawn of humanity and to infringe it represents a homicide. For others, to quote one columnist, it is “only a taboo to be overcome with a more nuanced approach to end-of-life issues than the simple absolutes of old would allow.”
Marie de Hennezel, a French psychologist and author of Nous voulons tous mourir dans la dignité (We all want to die in dignity) writes that many doctors and nurses who have euthanized patients have confided in her that they have been haunted for a long time with nightmares of the last gazes of their patients. Many have suffered depressions since then. If the question were one of taboos, there would not be this type of existential crisis experienced by those who injected a deadly substance in a patient.
Since the early days of Quebec’s debate on euthanasia and assisted suicide, I have argued that legalization will not help us to manage our fears of unbearable suffering.
I have a recurrent image in my mind and if I could draw it, it would look like a healthy person carrying an intravenous apparatus. Liquid is dropping steadily into his system from the moment he conceives of having recourse to assisted suicide at one point in his life. That toxic liquid injects doses of on-going anxiety regarding his own death. Each drop is a reminder, “I am burdened with the choice of when and how I want to die.”
One writer says, “if things get truly unbearable, the option is there — that our precious sense of control won’t be denied us at the moment in life when it matters most”. How can anyone be so confident that legalisation of assisted suicide will bring comfort to people, and not the opposite?
Instead of apprehension and the consequent suffering being confined to the time of trial, it is anticipated here and now, which is very often worse than reality, and this occurs time and again.
Psychologists have long recognized the capacity of humans to adapt and overcome adversity. This might explain why those most viscerally engaged in the legalization campaign are not the people who are suffering — although there are some and they are being widely publicised — but those enjoying good health.
Not content with their own choice, these campaigners will increasingly want to see that “control” exercised by others. As one said, “we are horrified at the thought that they (our parents) might not have the freedom — the control — that we would want for ourselves.”
Another takes it a step further by writing, “No longer something to be discouraged, stigmatized as an act of individual aberrance, it will henceforth be a social act in which others are expected to assist.”
Following this logic, imagine this scenario: “Hey friend, I know that you have no problem with assisted suicide, would you be so kind as to come to my place Friday night to assist me in my suicide?”
If doctors and nurses are tormented by the act of euthanasia on patients with whom they had no close bond, imagine the devastating impact on the friend, parent, children, and colleague when this request is made.
It is an illusion that unrestricted control of our lives will bring peace of mind. In fact, it will bring a heavy cost to our capacity to enjoy life in good times, and undermine our willingness to see through challenges in the bad times.
Monique David is a Montreal based writer and consultant for Non-For-Profit Organizations in Canada. A shorter version of this article appeared in the National Post, October 29.