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Dying with dignity

Physician-assisted suicide demands no less than a national debate

By David Wilson

A lot of people are afraid of doctors, and I suppose I’m one of them. But it’s not my annual checkup or being treated for routine aches and pains that frightens me. What really scares me is the lengths that doctors might go to to keep me alive if I am ever sick beyond any hope of recovery. Being hooked up to tubes and machines and having my faculties deadened by a steady drip of narcotics is as close to hell on earth as I can imagine.

Rest assured, I don’t obsess on this, but I do think about it. I suppose it’s a natural part of aging. I’m in my mid-50s, so the end is a lot closer than the beginning. I’ve also been thinking about it because of the response we received to a My View column published in March on physician-assisted suicide. The piece, by Sheila Noyes of Westminster United in Thunder Bay, Ont., urged The United Church of Canada to show some leadership in efforts to change Canadian laws that make it a crime for doctors to help end the life of someone hopelessly incapacitated or in unbearable pain.

An overwhelming majority of readers agreed with Noyes, many of them sharing heartbreaking stories of loved ones whose final weeks, months or even years were spent in unrelenting misery.

That same month, our online poll asked readers whether they supported legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Our web polls are far from scientific, but the results were intriguing: 79 percent of respondents said yes. That result is remarkably similar to a much more scientific poll by CBC Radio-Canada that showed 83 percent of Quebecers favour allowing physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in some cases. The poll was conducted late last year as a legislative panel held hearings to gauge public opinion on dying with dignity. The hearings have shown that the issue is complex and emotional, the more so for its religious dimensions. Don’t be surprised if the panel’s final report causes a stir beyond Quebec’s borders.

And so it should. Advances in medical techniques for prolonging life, combined with an aging population more insistent than ever about living well and dying well, demand no less than a national debate.

Will the United Church have a voice in it? I hope so. It has been 15 years since the church weighed in on the issue. Yet the values of compassion, justice and mercy that the United Church brought to the table are every bit as relevant today as they were in the mid-1990s. By reasserting those values in what could be a defining moral debate for our time, the church might reconnect with Canadians who’ve strayed from its midst. That would not only be a wise thing for the church to do; it would be the right thing.

* One way or another, we all die. What’s less certain is how our survivors handle it. In this month’s cover story (“Give grief a chance”), Ken Bagnell makes a case for old-fashioned grieving in an age when death often occasions a celebration of life.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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