As we rethink MAID, remember the alternative to assisted dying isn’t living – it’s unassisted dying

This column is an opinion by Michael Coren, a columnist, broadcaster, speaker, and the author of 17 books published in 12 languages. He is also an ordained cleric in the Anglican Church of Canada. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Canadians are back in the thick of the assisted-dying debate – and while that might be painful and challenging, it’s ultimately a good thing.

A Quebec judge ruled last September that parts of the federal and provincial laws on medically assisted dying were unconstitutional, and gave the government six months to address this.

The federal government has announced that its legislation around medical assistance in dying (MAID) will be amended and reintroduced in February, after nearly 300,000 people were consulted in regional meetings and in an on-line survey as to their thoughts.

“There’s a diversity of opinion,” said Justice Minister David Lametti, “but a lot of interesting and specific and concrete suggestions.”

I can only imagine what some of the responses were like, as opposition to this issue has been taken out of the hands of average Canadians and ownership grabbed by ideologues.

What a recent survey reveals, in fact, is that the majority of people believe in a controlled, supervised, and extremely limited form of assisted dying for people who are suffering, and whose death is close and will be otherwise painful and likely isolated.

But Christian conservatives see this is as an attack upon their faith, and rather like their opposition to abortion rights and equal marriage, are fighting to the last to oppose progressive legislation.

The language is important here.

It’s not “suicide” or “compassionate homicide.” It’s a highly skilled and caring medical system helping a terminally ill person in full control of their wits to end their life just a little before it otherwise would terminate, surrounded by their loved ones, and before the agony and terror become too much to tolerate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, say the federal government will table amended legislation around assisted dying in February. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

What is imperative to understand is that the alternative to assisted dying is not living.

The alternative to assisted dying is unassisted dying.

That means dying in pain, anguish and often totally alone, because that death – a thief in the night – can come at any time.

This isn’t about encouraging death or, as has been suggested, a death cult or murder panels, but rather listening to someone who merely asks for control over their own body and their own fate.

Nor is it necessarily about quality of life, which is a term far too often exploited for political ends.

Disability, for example, does not indicate lack of quality. Daily struggle does not mean a lack of quality. And age certainly does not mean that quality is lacking. We need to invest far more money in caring for the elderly and into palliative care, and change cultural norms so that we respect rather than reject physical antiquity.

These, however, aren’t the central issues in all this.

The daily reality of people dying is not movie romance or pious flippancy …

Consider what it would be like if you knew that you had months or perhaps even a year left to live, and that very soon the pain, in spite of medication, would be so overwhelming that you would need to be made almost comatose so as not to feel anything. Or that a neurological disease had taken hold and you knew before long your muscles would waste away, and that while the mind was still active, the body would eventually drown in in its own fluids.

The daily reality of people dying is not movie romance or pious flippancy, but a devout wish to say goodbye to friends and family, and to leave with a certain degree of self-respect and control before the person is no more even though the body still partly functions.

The idea that medical staff are anxious to end people’s lives, or indifferent to their suffering and the pain of their families, is as insulting as it is ludicrous.

The system would be heavily regulated, and led by doctors who, contrary to what the extremists say, have dedicated their lives to making people well and keeping them alive.

An online government survey asking Canadians for their thoughts on medically assisted dying closed Jan. 27 after garnering nearly 300,000 responses. (CBC)

There is a great deal of ignorance about all this, and far too many achingly banal comments about “slippery slopes” and the like.

I have to wonder, how many of these people have sat with an ailing loved one and heard them beg and plead to be permitted to go just a little early, while they can still grasp the love and the positive experience that their life has been?

My dad served in Bomber Command in World War Two. He had been a champion amateur boxer, raised two children, worked hard all of his life, and loved his wife, my mum. He knew after his second stroke and the returned cancer that it was over, that he had little time left, and that it would be ghastly. He wanted to go.

He turned his head to me and mouthed a few words that will always remain private. I was powerless, of course, and when I spoke to the doctor – a wonderful, caring woman – she simply held my arm and said nothing. The law didn’t permit her to intervene, and as a result my dear father’s suffering lasted longer than it should have.

His death was not a good one, and he deserved so much better.

So many deserve better.

Pray God – and I use the name of the deity purposely – we will all come to our senses.


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