In just one moment, my mother’s life changed forever. She awoke one morning a beautiful, vibrant, intelligent woman; that night she lay comatose in a neurological ward. Because of medical technology, she survived. We cared for her at home, and her dramatic recovery gave her life purpose, joy and peace. Tragically, there were repeated strokes, each one stealing another part of her. She spent the last three years of her life without speech and completely paralyzed, save for a limited movement with her right arm. Using that arm to gesture, she made it clear, repeatedly, that she wanted to die.
My younger sister was 36 years old when she found the lump in her breast. A wife and mother of two small children, she fought tenaciously to live. Brutal treatments were endured with fierce determination. Cancer won, metastasizing to her spine, paralyzing her slowly and agonizingly. When we asked how death would come, we were told my sister would be totally paralyzed, eventually suffocating to death. We were assured she would be so heavily drugged she would not know what was happening.
Both my mother and sister had bodies that no longer supported them. The only certainty each faced was more suffering and then death. After a lifetime of making decisions regarding their lives, this one last decision — to summon death on their own terms — was not allowed.
Personal autonomy ends at our deathbeds. We have the right to take our own lives, but no one can counsel or assist us; to do so is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. We have the right to stop eating and drinking and die slowly over a period of one to two weeks. We have the right to palliative sedation, being rendered unconscious until death comes.
According to a 2010 Angus Reid study, two-thirds of Canadians support legalizing euthanasia. The crux of the issue is choice. Throughout the world, laws are being changed to allow for assisted dying. A study of data from Oregon and the Netherlands, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2007, concluded that where assisted dying is already legal, there is no evidence for the claim that legalized physician-assisted dying has a disproportionate impact on patients in vulnerable groups.
Oregon’s 1997 Death with Dignity Act requires that dying patients be offered a full range of options. The state has become a leader in end-of-life care. In Oregon, Washington and Montana, mentally competent terminally ill adults can request a prescription for end-of-life medication from a physician. Assisted dying is also legalized or decriminalized in the Netherlands, Belgium, Albania, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
It is time for Canada to change its laws to allow for physician-assisted dying. Imagine the peace of mind it would give a dying person to know that when suffering becomes unendurable, a gentle death can be summoned.
To force someone to suffer is, quite simply, barbaric. Our faith calls upon us to love and serve others, to seek justice and to be merciful. The United Church of Canada should be a leader in the movement to allow for compassion in dying.
Sheila Noyes is a retired teacher, a member of Westminster United in Thunder Bay, Ont., and co-president of Dying with Dignity Canada.
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