A B.C. Supreme Court ruling last week that gives the right of doctor-assisted suicide to terminally-ill patients is being hailed a triumph for society by a member of the Prince George Council of Seniors.
Pat Coutts, the council's secretary, said Judge Lynn Smith made the right call when she chose to overturn federal law and grant West Kelowna resident Gloria Taylor a constitutional exemption that circumvents the illegality of euthanasia.
Smith ruled the new law will not take effect for one year, but allowed the 64-year-old Taylor, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) to seek a doctor's help to end her own life.
"I am totally in favour of people with ALS and end-of-life determinants being able to have doctor-assisted suicide," said Coutts. "I agree with the lady who won the court case, that death doesn't need to be a terribly disruptive and disturbing time for you or your family. Death is the end of our life, and if we can go gracefully rather than in agony for ourselves and all of the people around us, I think it's a much better choice."
Coutts said for euthanasia to be acceptable, a doctor would first have to give a terminal assessment and the patient would have to prove not to be suffering from depression or any other mental illness that would cloud their own decision-making ability.
"I don't think a doctor would ever give an assessment in that case if they figured it was depression, only in a terminal situation," said Coutts. "I go right back to Sue Rodriguez when she went through this. I figure the courts should have allowed her an assisted suicide as well."
In 1992, the terminally-ill Rodriguez filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada for the right to die but was turned down a year later in a 5-4 vote. In 1994, with the help of an unidentified doctor in B.C., the Victoria woman ended her life.
Prince George Council of seniors manager Lola-Dawn Fennell fears last Friday's decision could lead terminally-ill people into being coerced by family members to legally find ways to end their own lives.
"The potential for elder abuse is huge," said Fennell. "That would be family members that have had enough, trying to convince the elder, "You really don't want to live, do you?' We are seeing some pretty stressed caregivers out there and that's what I would worry about. I suspect [doctor- or family-assisted suicide] already happens in Canada, it's just done very quietly. It's human nature; we don't like to see people suffer. It will be interesting to see how this plays out."
The Smith ruling will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Smith, in her decision, acknowledged that palliative care is limited in its ability to ease the suffering of dying patients and sometimes that's only possible by keeping patients constantly sedated. She also said it is currently acceptable and legal for doctors to withhold life-sustaining treatments to bring on the death of palliative patients.
"In my secluded environment of hospice care I tend to believe that if expert palliative care is provided that the question of assisted suicide does not arise," said Donalda Carson, executive director of the Prince George Hospice Society. "However, in 17 years, there have been a few occasions whereby we have failed to completely relieve physical pain with our traditional pain protocols."
Carson said she hopes the Taylor case will raise awareness of the need for palliative care and will encourage people to plan for death while they are still healthy, determining such issues as power of attorney, advance heath care directives and substitute decision-making.
"End-of-life services are important and must be universally available In Canada," Carson said. "For too long this area of medicine and nursing has been undervalued and disregarded by some medical practitioners. We find that most often when a person is admitted to our care, they and those close to them, experience a great sense of relief that we are able to relieve their unpleasant symptoms, answer questions and provide an environment of support and proactivity in helping them achieve their goals at this stage in life."
Three U.S. states -- Washington, Oregon and Montana -- allow doctor-assisted suicide, as do Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Coutts said the seniors council is still waiting for the provincial government to follow through on its promise to produce an end-of-life booklet geared toward seniors that outline palliative choices for families.
"Families and seniors should be better-informed on what their choices are toward making steps towards end of life," said Coutts.