by Xander Seguin
“Whose body is this?” asked Sue Rodriquez in the early 90s. Diagnosed with ALS and doomed to waste away into nothingness, she pleaded wide-eyed through a CBC camera lens and at an entire nation. The nation blinked first.
In 1993 Sue Rodriguez narrowly lost the right to end her life with dignity, in a 5-4 decision at our nation’s highest court. She ended it anyway, with the help of an anonymous physician, a year later.
Almost twenty-two years later the Court faced the same question. This time, the ghosts of Kathleen Carter and Gloria Taylor sat in the benches. Ms. Carter, suffering from spinal stenosis, had flown to the permissive land of Switzerland to end her life in 2010. Gloria Taylor, also with ALS, had passed away of (ahem) natural causes before the Supreme Court of Canada could hear the appeal. Along with them in the benches sat the ghosts of countless women and men who had ended their lives prematurely, violently.
Dante would have them growing from a tree in the seventh circle of hell, pecked at mercilessly by harpies for eternity. Our laws at the time would have them linger days, weeks, months, until their bodies finally gave out and joined their spirits.
” The choice is cruel”, found a unanimous bench of the Supreme Court of Canada, between ending one’s life in pain and indignation, and ending it at one’s own hand earlier that need be. Both options truly devalue life in the eyes of those seeking physician assisted suicide. Perhaps Gloria Taylor said it best: “What I fear is a death that negates, as opposed to concludes, my life. I do not want to die slowly, piece by piece. I do not want to waste away unconscious in a hospital bed. I do not want to die wracked with pain.”
Many things have changed since 1993. It cannot be ignored that now-Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote the dissenting opinion twenty two years ago. Moreover, there are several jurisdictions that now allow physician assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and even Columbia where such a thing may be redundant. Hell, Oregon has allowed assisted suicide since 1994. From these lands come a wealth of research which has done little to affirm the “slippery slope” concerns propagated by euthanasia nay-sayers: that disabled populations will be targeted, that homicidal doctors will run amok, that the “value of life” will drop like the Canadian dollar.
We have heard about this “value of life” before. In 2011 the Supreme Court of Canada found it unconstitutional to force closing down Insite, a safe injection facility in Vancouver. In 2013 the Court struck down a cluster of criminal laws that kept prostitution both illegal and dangerous. In both circumstances, as in Carter, counsel for the Crown argued that these were necessary evils to protect the innate sanctity of human existence. As if the minority needed to be sacrificed, to die ravaged in pain in a hospital bed, or on bad smack in a forgotten alley, or strangled at the hands of some blood-eyed John, all so the effervescent “value of life” remained untouched.
Who are these people who “live”, if not those of us who are sick or curious or lost? And why do they own our bodies?
Thankfully ours is a young and stubborn and individualistic society and our courts know it even if our government does not. Because good law is not “made”, it is realized. In Carter, unlike in Rodriquez, the appellants argued that making physician assisted suicide illegal interferes with out Charter protected right to life. At first this seems counterintuitive (how can insisting that a person remain alive interfere with their right to be alive?), but then, it makes perfect sense. Sue Rodriguez ended her life anyway. So have countless others, away from family, when they were not ready. This was social reality. This was the cruel choice. And this was wrong. These are the social ills that our Constitution is meant to respond to.
This is why we have a “right to live”, and not a “duty to live”, as the Court has found. This is why we as Canadians, slowly but surely, are reclaiming our bodies and our freedom. Our nation is but a wonderful métissage of people making up their own damn minds.
And to paraphrase one more great Canadian: no dress rehearsal. This is our life.
Xander exists and breathes in Ottawa.