Assisted Suicide: Violating or Protecting Human Rights?

Illustration by Charlotte Wall
Illustration by Charlotte Wall

Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a controversial new law has been introduced to the Canadian legislature. The proposed bill would allow consenting adults with severe medical conditions to end their own lives with the assistance of their doctor or physician.

Although the bill doesn’t require that the patient be terminally ill, the physician must determine that “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable, taking into account all of their medical circumstances.” This includes medical conditions such as immune deficiencies, which leave the patient vulnerable to lethal infections. The law would also limit the service to Canadian citizens eligible for the country’s national health care system, in order to avoid “medical tourism,” or foreign patients traveling to Canada to end their lives.

While some, including Canadian health minister Dr. Jane Philpott, laud the bill as a step towards greater human compassion, others find the proposal more troubling. Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto, has stated that the bill “changes our approach to human life, it changes our approach to human society.”

A handful of countries already allow the practice, however, including Switzerland, Colombia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Even Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and California have ruled to permit assisted suicide in the past few decades. In the U.S., the issue of physician assisted death is a matter left up to the regulation of the states, meaning that there has never been a bill proposed to the federal legislature which would legalize assisted suicide in the country as a whole. Since Oregon first legalized assisted suicide in 1994 though, measures to do the same have been proposed in the legislatures of 35 American states, as well as Washington, D.C.

Yet despite the seemingly widespread support for the legalization of such action, opponents like Cardinal Collins argue that such laws can “devalue human life.” They pose legitimate concerns about the accuracy of prognoses and the potential of other factors such as depression to impair a patient’s judgment, yet the real issue up for debate seems to be the philosophical one.

This issue comes up again and again in American politics, specifically with regards to the death penalty and abortion. Many opponents of abortion speak of the sanctity of human life, which ought to hold that a human life is worth preserving at all costs, despite the fact that many of these protesters are not opposed to—or even supportive of—the death penalty. Nevertheless, there are many people who do indeed believe in the sanctity of human life to the extent that they oppose both abortion and capital punishment.

The same principle is often applied to physician-assisted suicide. As Cardinal Collins argued, the proposed bill would require a radical shift in how many people regard death. Western culture tends to both fear and vilify death, treating it as something to be hidden, staved off with pills and treatments, and ultimately overcome by the power of medical science. Yet perhaps a radical shift in perspective is something our society needs. Many family members of those who have chosen assisted suicide can attest to the relief and release assisted suicide can provide. When people have been suffering and will continue to suffer into the future, how can death be seen as the greater of two evils?

This new piece of legislature brings forward many questions we ought to be asking ourselves. How do we define living—as simply breathing, or as having the opportunity to experience and enjoy one’s existence? And can looking death in the eye as a society, rather than denying its inevitability and then hiding it away, make us more appreciative of the lives we do have the chance to live?

To speak of death in our society is often regarded as morbid or fatalistic. Yet it is as natural and commonplace as birth (if sadder), and to deny mentally competent, already-dying adults the chance to die on their own terms is a violation of their agency as human beings.

Rebecca Glazer

Rebecca Glazer

Rebecca Glazer

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