A few days ago the Canadian House of Commons rejected an assisted suicide bill. The proposed legislation would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients or people in unrelenting pain to end their lives. Currently, doctors or nurses or anyone else who helped someone die would be liable to murder or manslaughter charges and perhaps civil damages. Very few jurisdictions in the world authorize assisted suicide, which seems to be a “victimless crime.” The recent failure of this bill in Canada is a good opportunity to review reasons why society denies us an inalienable right to control our own death.
The dying person certainly has an interest in the right to end own life. First, suicide would stop unimaginable suffering. Second, the debilitating suffering is an affront to the patient’s dignity. Third, the dying person may want to accelerate the transfer of his or her property to the heirs. Fourth, the patient desiring suicide may wish to spare his or her loved ones the mutual torture of the situation. Finally, the patient may want to cap his or her health care bill. That of course is not very relevant in Canada unless your province refuses to pay for a life-saving cancer drug.
Not all public interest is against the dying person’s wish. Respect for private will and the freedom to choose is an important part of the Western way of life. But the difficulty here is that dying patients and people in unrelenting pain may have lower decision-making capacity so the society must take extra steps to ensure it understands the will of the patient correctly and that the patient is capable of forming decisions.
Generally, all issues that the society has with assisted suicide are rooted in the overarching interest to protect human life. Death is irreversible, so the risk of mistake is unacceptable even if the risk is small. The harm from assisted suicide based on a mistaken conception of the true will of the patient is enormous. People in great suffering are vulnerable and may have a lower capacity to make decisions or to communicate their true will. It is reasonable to speak of a slippery slope where we take less and less precautions or where our precautions are not enough in harder cases, which we cannot recognize. That path will take the society to where it may kill people who do not really want to die but simply cannot tell us about it.
That’s why, incidentally, the death penalty should be abolished: unless we can guarantee guilt, every time we kill a convict we risk killing an innocent man. Unless a convict’s life is less valuable than a patient’s, our highest duty to preserve life must make any risk of unjustified killing, including in the death penalty, unacceptable.
Another slippery slope argument is that the society will be seduced into tolerating more relaxed requirements for assisted suicide to lower the high cost of caring for the dying. The flip side of this argument is that we should prohibit assisted suicide to protect our standards of caring for the dying.
Our society is extremely complex and it is far from perfect. We make mistakes all the time. Sometimes, politics, ideology, or emotion influence decisions that should be exclusively technical. The risk of killing a dying patient who may not really be willing to die is too high given our paramount social duty of preserving life. Besides, modern science can certainly come up with means of reducing or eliminating suffering on the death bed, if not push the death farther away. Authorizing assisted suicide (just like authorizing the death penalty) is not a good idea.
(Pulat has just finished his third year at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. He is currently looking for an articling position.)