Euthanasia: Whose death is it anyway?
Stephen Gardiner’s real name or where he lives cannot be divulged because well-intentioned friends might try to stop him from killing himself. And he doesn’t want them implicated. Wolf Obgielo’s name can be made known because the details of the assistance he’ll get when he decides to die will not be revealed here. Both men are terminally ill with cancer and both want to choose—without the interference of authorities—the time and circumstances of their death.
The story of Vancouver’s 66-year-old Ken James can also be disclosed. James’s chronic back pain and heart condition are so debilitating, so unrelieved by daily morphine tablets, that he says, half laughing: “If I were a horse, they’d shoot me.” To avoid officials who could lay murder charges against anyone who helps him, he’s been researching the best methods for killing himself with minimal evidence left behind.
None of these B.C. men can access the prescription drug pentobarbital, which is the lethal drug of choice for most of the 38 or so people in Oregon who annually find release under that state’s so-called Death With Dignity law, its physician-assisted-suicide initiative passed in 1994. And Nembutal, a common trade name for the pentobarbital that Exit International’s Dr. Philip Nitschke recommends, isn’t as simple to acquire as it once was.
But there is helium inhalation. It’s a quick and easy-to-use option that New Westminster’s Russel Ogden, Canada’s leading researcher on right-to-die issues, knows is currently filling the assisted-suicide gap—until this country joins the growing number of jurisdictions where dying people can legally get help ending their lives.
In the decades ahead, no issue will be more contentious—as boomers age and medical costs go ballistic—than the fundamental right-to-die question: Whose life is it?
That was articulated by Sue Rodriguez in the early 1990s. Rodriguez was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and—incapable of any movements because of the paralytic effect of the disease—had decided to mount a legal challenge to the law, seeking permission to receive medical assistance for when she finally chose to die. “Who should decide when I die?” she asked. She lost the case in a famous Supreme Court of Canada 5-4 decision in September 1993. The court said no one—despite terminal disease, intractable pain, prolonged suffering, or an expressed desire for relief—could legally have help to die.
So the issue remains the proverbial elephant in the room: big, looming, and—because of the profound ethical questions involved—dangerous. Few politicians are brave enough to say, to paraphrase Pierre Trudeau, that the state has no place at the deathbeds of the nation. Few doctors, nurses, or those involved with hospice care are prepared to risk careers saying aloud what everyone knows: assisted suicide happens—discreetly—all the time in Canada. But were it made visible by admitting that, the police might intervene. So, instead, fear and silence reign. (As one of Vancouver’s leading palliative-care authorities said, requesting anonymity: “Everyone told me not to talk to you. I could lose my job. Talking about assisted suicide is taboo.”)
And yet, according to a February 2010 Angus Reid poll, a majority of Canadians (67 percent; 75 percent in B.C.) favour the establishment of a medically regulated system of euthanasia; a slightly smaller percentage favours the decriminalization of assisted suicide.
In January 2007, Wolf Obgielo, then 53 and newly unemployed after working for decades in forestry management, left his Pritchard, B.C., home east of Kamloops to find out why his persistent flu wasn’t going away. When the medical assessments were done, an oncologist informed him he had aggressive Stage IV cancer in his lungs and lymph nodes and had six to 12 weeks to live. It hit him, he says, “like a sledgehammer”. He’d watched his uncle dying, slowly suffocated by lung cancer. His father had hung himself in a closet in the face of prolonged chemotherapy. But for three years, Obgielo fought the disease. This past spring, however, wasted by the cancer drugs’ effects, he decided to give up and began looking at how he would end his life.
As he sits amid dozens of equestrian knickknacks and scores of wall-mounted photos of himself, his wife, and their two sons—many of them showing the family on horseback, riding the sagebrush-covered rangeland above Pritchard—his breathing is laboured, his words slow. He still rides, he says. His wife helps him. He’s a cowboy at heart. It’s his last real pleasure. But it’s getting harder now. The cancer is in his bones. His lower back. His left hip. Left ribs. His lungs and lymph nodes.
Is it painful?
“Oh, yeah!” he replies emphatically. “I’ve got a horror vision of me gasping like a fish in the bottom of a boat. Just flipping around, you know. People who are against assisted suicide don’t know the pain of dying, the mental torture. You could live longer, drugged up. But what the hell do you live for? It’s not the quantity of time but quality of life that matters.
“When I can’t ride my horse anymore”¦I’ll get the help I need,” he says. “The SPCA could have you charged for cruelty to animals if you have a dying animal and you don’t put it down.”