The Right to Life and Death

The Supreme Court of Canada faced a difficult decision last month as they heard arguments for the extension of the timeframe granted to the federal government to update the provisions of the Criminal Code that prohibit doctor-assisted suicide.   If the extension request had been denied, the provisions would simply be void and, as in the case of the legal void in Canadian law with respect to abortion, such decisions would have been left to the wisdom of patients and their doctors.

Some argued that such a legislative vacuum would open the door to abuses, and must accordingly be very clearly restricted after a protracted consultation process.  Others acknowledge the theoretical risk, but can point to the general absence of late term abortions to argue that individual patients and physicians can be relied upon to make responsible decision s in the vast number of cases.  In the end, the Court decided to continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on this issue, permitting an extension of only four months before the ruling would be enforced to void the offending provisions.  Sadly, even if the Government succeeds in bringing forward acceptable legislation that deftly balances these two competing perspectives, it will be too late for my friend Joel.

First off, a disclaimer: Joel was not a close friend, but he was a close friend of a close friend of mine.  I spent a lot of time in Joel’s company in a particular period in my life when the presence of an affable, generous and fun-loving co-conspirator for an evening out was a very welcome respite.  He was always full of tall tales, good cheer and a consistent focus on the present.

His reluctance to fuss too much about the future was understandable.  When I first met Joel, his mother was well down the road of a horrific physical and cognitive decline due to Huntington’s disease.  Huntington’s is a devastating genetic neurological disorder that has its onset in adulthood, leading to a dramatic deterioration that is ultimately fatal.  Children of Huntington’s carriers have a 50% chance of inheriting the disorder.  When I met first met Joel, only his older brother had begun displaying symptoms, and genetic testing was not widely available.  It was only some years later that Joel and his sister learned from a genetic test that they too would be afflicted.

Joel was fortunate to make it into his mid-fifties with only mild symptoms, but the looming deterioration had begun to accelerate in the past few years, prompting him to leave his work on long term disability.  In December, Joel learned that he’d soon lose more of his independence; his driver’s license was to be revoked and he’d be moved into an assisted-living facility.  Although he went through the motions of adjusting to these measures, this was his cue to take back control of his life.  Joel took matters into his own hands, and he took his life one week before Christmas.

Joel was under no misapprehension about what the future held for him.  The ultimate end for Huntington’s sufferers is tragically certain, and Joel had seen firsthand the decline of his own mother and brother.  There was no one better informed to assess the tolerability of that journey.  Had there been alternatives that would have allowed Joel to manifest a choice as to how far down that road he wished to venture, I am certain that it would have been ended at a later time and in a more comfortable place and in better company than alone, on the edge of a bridge, on a cold December Toronto night.

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