Euthanasia and the Law
A severely handicapped or terminally ill person should have the right to choose to live or die. The right to live; the right to choose to live or die should not only be a right allocated for bodied individuals of sound mind but for all human beings. Euthanasia is a controversial issue which encompasses the morals, values and beliefs of our society.
Euthanasia, literally defined means "good death". There are two types of euthanasia, active and passive. Active euthanasia is the intentional killing of a person by medical personnel either by a lethal injection or by denying ordinary means of survival. The act of euthanasia called "passive euthanasia", is committed by denying or withholding ordinary medical care to a patient.
Currently, under Canadian law euthanasia is prohibited. In Holland euthanasia has been accepted, in principle for terminally- ill patients, on request. It comes to be seen as practice for those whose "quality of life" is judged by themselves as worthless. Even though euthanasia is not yet legal in Holland, it is legally tolerated. Doctors are rarely prosecuted and even more rarely convicted. If euthanasia were to be decriminalized in Canada certain restrictions would have to be put into place, to ensure that a patient's rights are not infringed upon. A living will should be made when the patient is of lucid mind. Also, a council should be selected and outlined in the living will. The council should be chosen by the patient, when the patient is of sound mind and is able to make decisions. The council might consist of the patient's family, doctor or any other he or she feels have the same view or perception of life.
Presently in Canada a living will is not a legally binding document. A living will is a document prepared and sighed in advance of illness, in which a person may specify which treatment or care is to be withheld or withdrawn from him or her in certain situations. It is extremely general, trying to cover a wide range of accidents or illnesses and possible treatments. Living wills are created to protect the individual who is unable to participate in decisions regarding their medical care. In Canada, even with a living will in many cases any decisions on the removal of medical care must be passed through the court system. This system must be amended. The living will should be made a legally binding document. In the United States, living wills have become legally binding documents, in most states. The recognition of the living will as a legally binding document is one of the first necessary step required in the legalization of euthanasia ant the recognition of ones right to their own life.
Every person has the right to choose to live or die. This statement is a reality for most individuals, but for many terminally ill or permanently disabled patients this right cannot be exercised. Many patients lose control of the function of their arms and or legs and become completed dependent. The question then becomes, "When does ones quality of life reach such a low level that life then becomes not worth living?". A person, at any time, should be able to make this decision. Under the existing law Canadians are not granted this right, the right to their own life. An example of the absence of the "right to die", can be seen through the examination of a case from 1990. A woman named Michelle Frenette wanted to be disconnected from the respirator which was keeping her alive. Her doctors refused to disconnect her from the respirator without a court order. Michelle's family could not afford to go to court, and legal aid does not provide assistance in such cases. So, Michelle lay there, for two years until her eventual death. She should have been able to end her life, without having to obtain a court order, when she felt that her quality of life had been reduced to such a level that it was no longer worth living. In this particular case the law prevented and discriminated against Michelle and her inherent right to freedom of choice.
When a person decides whether euthanasia is an option for them, in their state of illness, they must consider their quality of life. As a result of their illness, has the quality of their life been reduced to such an extent that their lives are no longer worth living? Euthanasia should be allowed to be performed in these such cases. An example can be seen through the examination of the sue Rodriguez case. Sue Rodriguez was suffering from a fatal neurological illness which was gradually robbing her of muscle control. Rodriguez wanted to, "...be able to live as long as possible and to have the option, of suicide, at a time I feel I do not want to experience any more discomfort." In other words she wanted to be in control of her life and her death, a right that all people should be granted. Rodriguez went to the courts so that she could obtain permission to exercise her right. After several appeals and the final appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, Rodriguez was not granted the right to die. Finally, on February 12, 1994, Rodriguez exercised her right to die, even though it was illegal. Rodriguez assisted by an unknown doctor and witnessed by New Democrat MP, Svend Robinson was assisted in her suicide in her home in Victoria. All people should be granted the right to die by the law. Not having the right, one's freedom of choice is infringed upon and in some cases denied.
A person should have the right to die, but what if they are never fully competent to be able to form such a decision? Who has the right to say when, by whom or by what means this should be done? An example of this situation is evident in the Robert Latimer case. In this situation Tracy Latimer, Robert's daughter, had been suffering from cerebral palsy since she was born. Tracy would never learn to walk, talk or develop mentally, beyond the level of a new born child. Throughout Tracy's twelve years of life she experienced almost nothing but pain. Seizures were nearly continuous until an anticonvulsant drug reduced them to about five seizures a day. At the age of nine she had an operation on her legs and feet which left her in a body cast, for six weeks. At the age of eleven her spinal cord began to cram her organs. Another operation was performed during which two stainless steel rods were inserted and attached to the vertebrae. For the pain these operations she could take nothing stronger than Tylenol. Finally in October of 1993, Tracy's father, Robert, could not stand to see her suffer any longer. In an act of mercy he put Tracy into the family's truck and hooked the exhaust system of the truck up to a tube so that the exhaust would enter the cab of the truck. Tracy died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Robert claimed his act was one of compassion. Robert was tried and sentenced for second degree murder. The courts' decision is currently under appeal. It can be understood that Robert was under great stress and pain to have to witness some one suffer for so many years. Did he have the right to decide Tracy's fate when she did not have the capacities to communicate her wishes? Was it Robert's duty or right to end her suffering?
Does a doctor have the right to help his or her patients commit suicide? Why should a doctor or nurse be penalized for assisting people to exercise their recognized right to take their own lives? Most people shudder at the stories about incurably ill people leading a dragged-out vegetative existence in hospital beds, kept alive only by drugs, intravenous tubes, and respirators. It is felt by some that they do not want to become "vegetables", they would like to die with dignity. Dying with dignity means that the patient's intellectual identity is preserved even in the process of dying. In Canada there is a Dying with Dignity group which concentrates on promoting living wills and lobbying the medical profession for support.
The act of mercy killing can be compared to that of active euthanasia. An example of mercy killing takes place every day without much thought if it is right or wrong. Family pets such as dogs and cats are, "put down", when the owner sees that the animal is in constant pain due to illness, most people feel that it is the humane thing to do. This type of "humane" treatment for animals has been taking place for years. It can not be understood that society would let a human life suffer for years. Forcing someone who no longer wants to live, to live a life full of pain and misery. The humane response to this would be choose euthanasia, giving freedom to the individual from their pain and unhappiness.
Under our existing Canadian legislation the following hypothetical example would leave the medical community and our society in a legal and ethical bind. Mr. Brown is a transient, who is presently living on the street and in and out of the Salvation army in downtown Ottawa. Mr. brown has no traceable family, and no proof of his identity. He has never been declared incompetent in area's of either personal property and personal care. He is hit by a car downtown in the market, he is currently in the Civic Hospital's intensive care unit. He is hooked up to, and dependant on life support systems since, his organs no longer function independently. Brain scans continued to show brain activity, therefore he cannot be deemed legally dead. He has no living will, no person deemed power of attorney, no family and is unable to make the decision himself. According to the law his doctors are unable to detach his life support systems. When can it be deemed legal for Mr. Brown to be detached from the life support system? If he were to be disconnected, who would make his decision? As the law presently states no one has the legal right to disconnect him, to let nature take its course. Will he be hooked up to life support indefinitely? What is the cost? Is this burden worthwhile for society? Something must be done to solve this problem.
A severely handicapped or terminally ill person should have the right to choose to live or die. The "right to life", is one that should be a fundamental right of all individuals. When the time comes that an individual feels that their pain and suffering has become so extreme that their quality of life has been reduced to such a level that life is no longer worth living. Canadian laws presently do not grant individuals these rights. The laws that restrict these rights must changed to all Canadians with the ultimate freedom of choice the right to die.