The Right to Die
By Gary Bauslaugh
Reviewed by Alan Danesh
Philosopher Sartre rightly observed that we are thrown into a world we did not make.
Bauslaugh’s timely book examines the question of choice at the other end of life. Are we to have the right to decide that we have suffered long enough and end our suffering? Are we to expect less compassion from the powers that be – the law, the religious establishment, the courts, and the medical services – than a severely ailing and suffering pet is offered when euthanized to end its suffering?
The book, as the subtitle states is “the story of the courageous Canadians who gave us the right to dignified death.” It opens with the letter-to-editor by Allan Scott of Victoria, BC, who was dying of lung cancer and dreading three things:
- Unnecessary, prolonged physical and psychological distress.
- Unnecessary, large monetary costs to his family and to the healthcare system.
- Unnecessary loss of dignity.
The Right to Die sympathetically presents stories of the Canadians such as Sue Rodriguez who desperately appealed to courts to be allowed physician-assisted dying – since she was too disabled by an advanced case of ALS to end her own life – and was refused this right by the Supreme Court, and finally ended her life with the assistance of an unnamed and clearly merciful physician who risked his or her future to provide the needed assistance.
Then there is the story of Robert Latimer where “justice went awry” and was convicted of second-degree murder for lovingly and mercifully ending the life of his severely disabled daughter who after many painful surgeries was still suffering unbearable pain. And the book narrates the story of other merciful Canadians like John Hofsess who sought to provide advice and assistance to the terminally ill.
The book finally comes to the historic decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015 which unanimously declared the Criminal Code’s blanket prohibition of any assisted dying a contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and gave the Government of Canada one year to come up with legislation allowing physician-assisted dying under certain conditions.
A highly important issue discussed in the book, along with numerous case studies, is the right of juries to bypass any Criminal Code provision the jury deems unjust – a concept called “jury nullification” – and to declare the accused “not guilty”, the most famous case being that of Dr. Henry Morgentaler which resulted in the Supreme Court striking down the abortion law although, regrettably, the Court also banned the courts informing the jurors in the future of their right of jury nullification.
As the matters currently stand, Quebec’s Bill 52 legalizing “medical aid in dying” has been approved by Quebec’s Supreme Court. We also have a highly progressive set of recommendations by the parliamentary committee for Canadian legislation on physician-assisted dying. However, according to the media reports, the proposed legislation falls short of the recommendations of the parliamentary committee.
The Right to Die is a book that deserves to be read compassionately by all who feel mercy for their suffering fellow humans. If, as Sartre observed, we have no choice in being born, we should have the choice as to how and when to leave a world which was not of our making if we are not to remain the prisoners of life.
Alan Danesh is a political scientist and sociologist trained in law. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.