The right to choose death

I have difficulty imagining the level of courage it takes to say to friends and family that you want to die

I have difficulty imagining the level of courage it takes to say to friends and family that the best way for them to show how much they love you is to let you die.

Then again, I’ve never had to live with a fatal illness that strips an individual of all dignity before delivering an agonizing end.

Gloria Taylor, a 63-year-old grandmother, isn’t so fortunate. Suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal neurological affliction, Taylor is — to paraphrase Dylan Thomas — not going quietly into that good night. But unlike the poet, her rage is not against the dying of the light, but aimed instead at Canada’s ban on assisted suicide, a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

Taylor told reporters outside the B.C. Supreme Court last week that she can no longer wash herself unaided and called it “an assault not only on my privacy, but on my dignity and self-esteem.” Her argument for being legally allowed to end her own life is a difficult one to disagree with. As she told Associated Press: “It is my life and my body and it should be my choice as to when and how I die.”

Personally, I find this particular Canadian law to be hypocritical. How can it be legal to end the life of an unborn child, yet be illegal to make the same decision for yourself?

And, yes, it opens a huge can of worms that can be messy and slippery to deal with, but the bottom line should be individual choice. If, like Taylor, you are still able to make your free and informed consent known to a doctor, he or she should be legally allowed to help you die in as comfortable a manner as possible.

For those individuals who are no longer able to effectively communicate consent, their predetermined wishes should be allowed in the form of an attachment to their living will, akin to a do-not-resuscitate notice. Every individual has their own limits to what they find to be an acceptable level of life. For some, it could be the complete absence of brain activity. For others, it could be when dementia robs them of the ability to recognize their spouse or when their body deteriorates to the point that pain is more prevelant than joy.

Not every case will be cut and dry. Nothing in human history ever is. But when you have women as courageous as Taylor and Sue Rodriguez (who lost her own court battle for the right to assisted suicide in 1994, and later took her own life with the help of an anonymous doctor) who stand up to say they want the right to choose how and when they die, how can we ignore that?

Taylor has also let it be known that she isn’t suicidal. In fact, she hopes to hang on for as long as she can, but when the time comes and her options are reduced to an agonizing and undignified death or a peaceful end with the aid of a doctor, she wants to have that choice.

Wouldn’t you? M

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