"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."
- Norman Cousins (1912-1990), American editor, essayist and world peace advocate
Many people would agree that if you found a mortally wounded animal in the woods and you had a means of putting it out of its misery, that would be the kindest thing to do.
Substitute "person" for "animal" and do the same thing and you'll be facing a period of incarceration.
But what if the person was of inarguably sound mind, knew that their demise was inevitable and begged you to help them end their agony.
Could you do it? Would you?
A scenario like that arises in the wonderful and somewhat obscure 2005 movie "Twelve and Holding."
Actor Jeremy Renner, recently nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Hurt Locker," plays a former firefighter who once discovered a horribly burned girl at a fire scene. Half of her face had been seared away and her agonizing pain was evident. When she begged him to put her out of her misery, he complied, and is forever haunted by the act.
Whether you think his actions right or wrong, they confront an undeniable truth. While many people die in their sleep or are horribly killed in tragic accidents or through terrible acts of violence, there are some people who reach a time in their life when, if given the choice, they would choose of their own accord to have it end.
Currently, we don't have that choice - at least, not within the law.
In Canada, helping someone end their life, or if you're a physician, actively causing the end of someone's life is illegal - no matter how definitive the person has been about wanting to die, no matter how lucid they are and no matter how humanely it is carried out, or that it may be the only option available for ending their pain.
Whether it should stay that way is currently up for debate in Parliament.
Dying with dignity
Bill C-384, introduced in the House by Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde, would make it legal for a physician to help someone die with dignity, but only under very strict conditions, including that the person be at least 18 years old; be lucid; have given written consent, on two occasions more than 10 days apart, that they want to die; and be terminally ill or suffering from severe physical or mental pain without any prospect of relief after either trying or refusing the appropriate treatments available.
There are other criteria too detailed to mention, but they can be found online by doing a search for "Bill C-384" on the Parliament of Canada website (www.parl.gc.ca/).
In an editorial titled "Unfinished Business" in the journal Humanist in Canada (Spring 2005), Gary Bauslaugh makes a cogent and compelling argument for changing the status quo.
He writes that by making it illegal for physicians to help "end the intractable and intolerable suffering of terminally ill people, people who can find no relief, are maxed out on morphine, and are desperate to end their lives," the law as it stands may actually be encouraging terminally ill people to take their own lives while they are still physically able to do so. In other words, some people are opting to die alone, without comfort or support, in order to avoid getting other people in trouble with the law for having helped them.
For those who would argue that only God should have the power to choose the time of our death, Bauslaugh counters with the following:
"We live in a society in which, for many reasons (not the least of which is to protect freedom of religious belief), the actions of the State are supposed to be independent of the idiosyncrasies of any particular set of religious beliefs. In the case of suicide, certain religions have a fixed opposition that comes from a conviction that only God can determine when a person should die, and awful suffering is just to be endured. This belief, and the influence its adherents may have on public policy, results in cruelties that we would bestow on no other living creature."
This is a highly contentious issue and there are many arguments that can be persuasively made for and against changing the legislation to permit physician-assisted suicide.
The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, for example, suggests that because Bill C-384, as proposed, does not restrict its application solely to Canadian citizens, it could lead to Canada becoming a hotbed of suicide tourism.
That group also worries that someone who formally requests physician-assisted suicide and appears to be lucid might not actually be so.
Supporters of Bill C-384 argue that physician-assisted suicide, in situations where the person is terminally ill, would at least assure them of a death that is humane and dignified, as opposed to someone rigging up some horrible contraption to bring about their own painful and unattended death.
Whatever your own personal stand, death is the ultimate destiny of us all, and it's time we talked about it more openly.
Death presents a multitude of choices, and I don't mean just pre-paid funerals, burial vs. cremation, or choosing the music for your own memorial service.
Sometimes the choices are a lot simpler, and a lot more important.
If your beloved pet was wracked with inextinguishable pain and its death was inevitable, would you have it humanely euthanized if you could?
As Gary Bauslaugh writes, "We should try to find ways of easing suffering in the world, not needlessly increasing it. Helping people end their lives with dignity is one such thing we can do. Any of us may, someday, wish it so for ourselves."
If you don't think you will ever wish that for yourself, that is your right, and I respect that.
Me? I'm wishing for a choice.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story
editor. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.
Humanist in Canada - www.humanistperspectives.org/issue152/index.html
Euthanasia Prevention Coalition - www.euthanasiaprevention.on.ca/Analysis-BillC384.htm
Euthanasia World Directory - www.finalexit.org/worldlaws.html