Canadians should have the option to receive all forms of medical care, including assisted dying. In this case, the taboo nature of death could be overcome. As a society, we have become disconnected from the process of dying.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that, “the prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes upon the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.” People who live with terminal illness and unbearable pain should be allowed the right to die.
In June 2016, Canadian legislation (Bill C-14) established criteria and procedures for the provision of medical assistance in dying (MAID) under certain specified conditions. In doing so, Canada joined Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Colombia in allowing medical assistance in dying. Furthermore, in the United States, the District of Columbia along with six other states allow some forms of medical assistance in dying.
Over 4,000 Canadians have chosen medical assistance to end their lives since the practice became legal in Canada three years ago.
The right to die has changed over the years, as society’s views about death have changed. In the first half of the 20th century, many people died in their home where they were cared for by family members. Death was also a community event. After people died, they were often laid to rest in their homes. Loved ones prepared the body. As the deceased lay in rest, family, friends, and neighbours would visit to support one another and to pay their respects. In many communities, especially in rural areas, family members would build a wooden coffin, and at other times, a local cabinet maker would craft the box. After a period of visiting the body, it would be moved to a place of worship, depending on the family’s religious background. After the ceremony, the person would then be buried in a cemetery.
As death was a local experience that happened within a family’s home, family members and friends were very involved. This meant that death was a part of everyday life, not a mystery. As society became industrialized, concerns grew about public health, specifically about the spreading of disease. As a result, final care of family members was then moved to other places and death would happen elsewhere, such as in a hospital. In addition, the preparation of the dead body and the visitation was also removed from the home due to the increase of funeral parlours in towns and cities across Canada.
With these changes in Canadian culture and society, death and the dying process has become foreign and frightening for many people. Today, many avoid talking about death and treat it as a taboo topic.
In addition to this, many people now have a reluctance to face aging and death. Most would want to live forever or, at least, longer – however, death is inevitable. Many people today also value control over their own existence, and as such, want to live and die free from pain and in a way of their own choosing. By facing the reality of death, talking about it, and treating it as a natural part of our existence as human beings, we can develop and prepare for our own death and the death of those whom we love.
Many people use constitutional arguments to support medically-assisted dying, however, there are also three main arguments in opposition to physician-assisted dying. Firstly, religious opposition: many religions consider human life to be sacred. Secondly, the slippery-slope theory: physician-assisted dying for terminally ill people can lead us down a ‘slippery slope’ as it might be all too easily extended to those who are disabled, mentally ill, or ‘tired’ of life. Finally, there are medico-ethical arguments: the medical codes of ethics (for example, the Hippocratic Oath) which prohibit taking the life of a patient.
Dying in Canada and our ideas, beliefs, and expectations regarding the end of our lives, have evolved substantially and they continue to evolve today from a communal activity to an institutionalized practice removed from everyday life. Some would argue that the legalization of medical assistance in dying means that Canada has moved beyond denying death itself, and that we are now accepting and facing death. Others would argue that medical assistance in dying might simply be a way of avoiding being present for our own deaths. No matter what stance a person takes on medical assistance in dying, the more we talk about it, and the more supports we make for individuals and families involved with the dying process, the more we will create a culture where both living and dying are valued.