The right to die and the duty to live

Posted on: 04 August 2011 by Alexander Hay

A test case in Canada may set the tone for the assisted dying debate. But contradictions continue to obstruct any easy answer or attempts to resolve the debate

What is the just decision in regards to assisted dying?

While the rest of the world is looking elsewhere, something major is happening in Canada - a test case on the sensitive matter of assisted dying:

When Gloria Taylor learned that the Supreme Court of British Columbia has agreed to expedite her case for assisted suicide she sounded like someone who had just won a prize.

“All right! Oh, I’m so happy about that,” said Ms. Taylor on Wednesday, when informed the court has agreed to hear her right-to-die case beginning Nov. 15.

“Actually I just said to my granddaughter, Oh God, today we’ll find out. I sure hope it’s not March because I don’t want to wait that long, till I’m really, really bad and it’s way, way, way hard for me to travel,” said Ms. Taylor, who was reached at her home in Westbank, near Kelowna, where she is facing a slow, painful death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease...

If her case is successful, Taylor will set a precedent in Canada and the rest of the anglosphere. If it fails, we will return to the seemingly never-ending controversy over how we die and when.

Both outcomes offer mixed blessings. Certainly, the right to die comes with considerable self-determination. Canadians will, hypothetically, have greater control over their bodies and their lives.

But underpinning the 'right to die' is the danger that it can quickly evolve into a 'duty to die'. Taylor's own affadavit reflects this belief that severe disability and suffering not only robs us of our autonomy but also our reason to stay alive. The current and often romantic notion of an 'easy death' also surfaces. The right to live risks becoming as conditional as the right to die is at present:

“One of her greatest fears is to be reduced to a condition where she must rely on others for all of her needs. She does not want to live in a bedridden state, stripped of her dignity and independence,” the affidavit states. “She wants the legal right to die peacefully, at the time of her own choosing, in the embrace of her family and friends.”

Ultimately, the right to die will always be a paradox, with great implications for society, the medical profession, religion and our sense of what constitutes a life and what makes it valuable. Any decision may, in any case, be too late for Gloria Taylor:

...With the trial slated to run into December, and a decision likely to take several weeks, Mr. Arvay was asked if he is concerned his client might not live long enough to profit from the judgment, should it be in her favour.

“Gloria is an amazing woman,” he said. “She has lived much longer than the doctors predicted she would. She told me that she was going to hang on as long as it took in order for her to exercise her constitutional right...”

Living just to earn the right to die sums up the issue perfectly. Contradiction lies at the heart of the assisted dying debate and precludes any simple answer.

[SOURCE: The Globe and Mail]

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Alexander Hay

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