Supreme Court clears way for physician-assisted death

The modern Hippocrates oath on the medical treatment of life-and-death issues cautions, ‘Tread with care’. This Winnipeg MP wants readers to come forward and state their views on the issue.

Steven Fletcher Taking Note
Steven Fletcher
Taking Note

Every Canadian alive today and every Canadian that will ever be will in some way be affected by the Supreme Court ruling of Feb. 6 striking down the prohibition against physician-assisted death.

Some people were surprised by the extent to which the Supreme Court is allowing physician-assisted death. Not only will terminally ill individuals be eligible, but so will those with chronic non-terminal illness, disabilities and psychological challenges. Their suffering must be intolerable with no mitigation available to satisfy the individual’s expectations. To be eligible for physician-assisted death, one must be an adult, be cognitive, with all of their faculties and the procedure must be supervised by a physician.

The Supreme Court has said that physician-assisted death is a right of Canadians who meet the criteria. I believe that decisions like this should be made by elected representatives who are accountable to the people they represent, but in this case the Supreme Court made the decision for legislators. The debate on the prohibition of physician-assisted death is over.

This is a paradigm shift in Canada. It was only in 1993 that the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling prohibited Sue Rodrigues, who had ALS, from receiving legal, physician-assisted death. Sue courageously asked the world, “Who owns my body?” On Feb. 6, 2015, the Supreme Court said, “Sue YOU own your body.”

Many readers will recall the case of Susan Griffith who had a terrible neurological degenerative disease. Rather than face the prospect of being trapped in her own body and unable to end her pain, she decided to go to Switzerland for help to die. The terror of what might be her future outweighed any hope that her condition would allow her to live a little longer.

Canadians will no longer have to take their own lives before it is too late, or worry about dying without dignity or suffering without hope it will end. The Supreme Court has said it is up to the individual to make the best decisions they can for themselves based on their life experience, morals, ethics and religion. If a person is not cognitive, say with dementia, they would not be eligible. Nor, to give another example, is an individual with chronic depression.

There will be a burden on medical professionals, especially physicians. But the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that no physician would be forced to perform an act that they did not feel comfortable with.

There is a common misunderstanding of what the modern Hippocratic Oath states. You can see from the text taken from the oath that it contemplates the ramifications for physicians.

“I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”

As Parliament moves forward to craft legislation to work within the framework the Supreme Court has provided, I ask the readers of these words to help me ensure your views are heard in Ottawa. I will be having forums on this issue and am happy to meet with or chat with anyone on this issue or any other.

My contact information is as follows: phone, 204-984-6432; email: steven.fletcher@parl.gc.ca; twitter:@HonSFletcherMP. More information can be found on my website, www.stevenfletcher.ca.

Hon. Steven Fletcher is the member of Parliament for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley, and has served as Minister of State for Democratic Reform and for transport. He has been a leader in the Dying with Dignity movement.

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