Euthanasia: Whose death is it anyway?

Canada’s highest court ruled that euthanasia is illegal, but that won’t stop some doctors from helping terminally ill patients die.

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.

Charges laid in 1905

By Russel D. Ogden

The earliest known charge of aiding suicide in Canada is documented in a tiny footnote in the 1905 federal report of criminal statistics. It merely notes that a Vancouver woman was acquitted of aiding and abetting suicide.

The incident occurred on March 1, 1905, in the 900 block of Westminster Avenue, now Main Street. It was front-page news in the Daily World, the Daily News Advertiser, and the Vancouver Daily Province.

Mr. H. E. Hexum and his wife were binge drinking when he slashed his throat with a razor, allegedly urged on by his wife. A police doctor stitched up Mr. Hexum. The couple was arrested and transported to the police station in a horse-driven taxi.

Justice was swift. Without lawyers, the husband and wife appeared before police magistrate Williams the next day. For attempting suicide, Mr. Hexum was immediately sentenced to three months in jail with hard labour. Mrs. Hexum was acquitted of aiding and abetting suicide, which at the time carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

The magistrate had harsh words for Mrs. Hexum. He found her so obnoxious in court that he said it would have been more appropriate if she had been charged with driving her husband to suicide.

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.”

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Comments (28) Add New Comment
LTD.Edition
If someone wants to die they will find a way. It's a shame we can't ensure that it's the most peaceful and respectful way possible with our current laws.

I'd hope it will one day be legal with the proper safeguards around such laws. Allowing those who want an end to their suffering to have a dignified exit from this life with those they love and hold dear in their presence and allow all those touched by such an act time to say their goodbyes.
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how bout a right to air?
Here is a euthanasia TV ad (0:45) that was recently banned by the Television Bureau of Canada.


There is nothing wrong with the ad according to the Canadian Criminal Code (s. 241). There is obviously someone at the is 'bureau' who made an executive decision made on some other precept, most likely one of religious nature.

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Carl Gullet
The level of sophistry involved on this topic from the anti-euthanasia side is absurd. The main thing holding Self Deliverance back is most certainly religion. The superstitious notions of hellfire, brimstone and whatnot scare people shitless. And one of the big reasons that the terror instilled in something like suicide was because the church needed fierce crusading proselytizing marauders for their empire of persuasion and control ever since the days of Constantine.

People like the Cathars or even Martin of Tours who rejected violence in any form and would rather die themselves rather than kill another posed a huge threat to the church. Needless to say suicide and non-violence became anathema and it has stuck ever since.

This can be witnessed by the fact that essentially everyone who is arguing against another person's right to choose euthanasia, will be the same crowd screaming for capital punishment and the need for more troops in the middle east...or any other heathen's lands.

I understand that some doctors might be afraid of lawsuits that could possibly arise. But, I know for a fact that many doctors have been brought up in religious families and that therein lies their inhibitions alone. As witnessed during the passing of my own father in a Victoria Hospice last winter.

And i'll reiterate now what I said to the palliative elves last winter. Whatever the reason for your fears, understand that death is not to be feared. Needless suffering is.

Regardless, I had the fortune of watching dad rot for a week and then finally die from dehydration.
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Ellen
Thank you to the Georgia Straight, thank you so very much for going public with this topic. Just who else will - certainly no politician. I much favour euthanasia, and not just for the terminally ill, but like in the Dutch proposal, for whoever over 70 has "lived" life and wants to leave. One can write to public "leaders" in this country; never an acknowledgment, never a reply. It appears we are subjected to the inhumanity of being kept alive beyond our wish to live to feed the exponentially expanding health care industry and appease religions.
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Right2Live
What safe guards can possibly be in place to ensure that an unethical relative doesn't pull the plug before the person is ready to die?

I got a call from family in Ontario stating that my mother was dying and for me to come ASAP. I had just spoken to her 1 week prior she said she was fine and sounded fine. I was told she was taken to hospital to get fluid drained, as she's been doing for the past few years, and the hospital wanted to keep her over-night. The hospital I was told put her in a codeine induced coma! I was not told this until after she died! My brother had authority over her should she be unable to make decisions for herself. He said he didn't ok the induced coma. When I got to hospital, she was not hooked up to anything, no fluids, food, nothing, they were starving and dehydrating her! She was dead within 3 days, and yes the estate was left in my brothers name, he owed her allot of money from his business! I didn't challenge the estate, because I didn't think I could handle the court battle in regards to what took place.
Just make sure you have at least three trusted people make your death decision when the time is right, and have your wishes on video. Mother rest in peace.
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James Leonard Park
Why not Voluntary Death by Dehydration (VDD):
http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/VDD-Q&A.html
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DRW
One of the BIG problems is creepos tryying to convince old Aunt Mary that her life is OVER ANYWAY. You know the Aunt Mary who has all kinds of stocks/bonds/property.
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Mike Grant
If a person can state clearly to an independent council their wish and the reasons for wishing to die and no alternative is available beyond painful death or soul searing loneliness in a body become prison who are we to deny them?
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Sorry to hear..
...that your brother is a dick. The worst part is that your mother had to basically starve and dehydrate to death. This method is barbaric. That's one of the points of this article. We can change these methods and let the patient decide for themselves in advance if they would like to end their lives in a more peaceful method rather than leave it until it is too late and let shady family members decide for them. In that case I am sure that you would have definitely been informed much farther in advance and you wouldn't have had to go through the psychological torment that your brother ended up putting you through. This is something that Canadians need to start discussing, opposed to procrastinating, as we always do when the subject of death come up, and implement a more humane civilized way of crossing the void.
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Rod Hebner
I honestly believe the laws in Holland are based on common sense when it comes to the terminally ill. Euthenasia is a difficult issue for the living but not for the terminally ill who are left with no way out of a situation they alone are left to deal with. For Euthenasia to be granted in Holland, it must first come as a request from a terminally ill patient. The patient's doctor must submit an application and all medical records to a medical board of governors who consider the request based on the medical records provided. A decision is reached by the board and if the application is approved, the doctor must follow the stict guidelines given by the board. The doctor must inform the patient of those guidelines and the patient must ask three separate times with a given time period between each time. The doctor is not to influence the patient's decision in any way, at any time. Once the final request is given, the prescribed time period is given and the doctor informs the patient that his request for euthenasian has been approved, a date for it is set and a final question is put to the patient before witnesses who are required to sign as witnesses to the final request. A prescribed lethal cocktail of drugs is given to the patient who drifts off to sleep and death without pain or discomfort. It's ironic that we, as humans, have more compassion for our beloved pets than we do for our terminally ill family members. I truly hope in the event that I become terminally ill that the law changes so it allows me a choice in my final days on this earth
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Peter Mc
Thank you Daniel Wood for your excellent article.
Hopefully one day nobody will force us to suffer if we don't want to, individual rights wlll be respected not only on paper, assisted-suicide and euthanasia will be legalized.
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Cristina
Once euthanasia is legalized.... there will no longer be a choice. It will be much cheaper to kill people off than to heal them. Think about it!
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Bridget
I would rather die believing in God and be wrong, than die not believing in God and be wrong.
As humans the easiest laws to follow are the ones that are black and white with no gray areas. When you have gray areas too many people will interpret them differently and will screw up. All throughout history has this been proven. Read your history and also read and talk to people who do not agree with your opinion. You will find out information that you may never have thought of before. It is called being informed, something that we can all aspire to, including me.
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Mihaela
I'd rather be a dog which,
In his great suffering, has a chance
To be saved ... by euthanasia,
Decided by good people,
People who think and feel,
And impressed, they say not worth
Even a dog to suffer,
So vain and endlessly”¦
But the dog has not
The consciousness of what is itself”¦
And what will be”¦
A life maimed and a heavy suffering
With a sore heart, that
There will never heal, in all his life ...
That's just us, people feel
And, we no longer think
What if, instead of dog, be you, man,
You who would like have some of full
For human pity and compassion.
The man, who understood a pain
So big and unfair ...
As a dog suffering ...
And only then, we humans,
We will be able to hope that there is good,
Not only as a moral, as a ethical ...
But as a deep and human understanding,
As we understand the dog
Which we will not let him die
In terrible pain and struggles ...
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Erik Danielsen
Thanks Bridget...or Pascal..or whatever your name might be. You can believe all the superstitious nonsense that your church can possibly pump into your head. That's your right. If you'd like to believe that there is a wrathful shaggy bearded god who is up in heaven waiting to horseship all the people that neglected to worship him during their brief stint on earth in human form, that's fine. But, if I have to put up with that horseshit then you can put up with other people choosing to end their lives in a more dignified way rather than to needlessly suffer. Both items are supposed to be protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Unfortunately, of those 2 items, only freedom of religion is actively protected. I hope that this is changed shortly.

Thank you for proving to everyone that religious fear is what is holding up a long overdue legalized euthanasia bill for Canada. I wish everything could be black and white for you. On behalf of all heathens Canada wide I apologize for any grEy areas that might confuse you or scare you.
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Mister Fister
Christians are the worse Christians.
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Rod Hebner
Please remember that euthenasia would or could only be considered for the terminally ill and not for anyone or any doctor to consider on their own. It would be a legal process and not as most here tend to think of as a legal means to terminate the lives of the elderly or anyone else.
Too many seem to think that euthenasia is a one step, get it done as you would a haircut and this is a total misconception. No doctor could provide it without an approved application which would have to be approved by a board of medical doctors who would have full access to the medical records of the terminally ill. My sister died from stomach cancer and this was not an easy or pain free way to die. It was long, debilitating and with no options in stopping it. I'm not saying she would have chosen euthenasia but she should have had that option.
For those that have religious, moral or other personal beliefs that restrict you from the option of euthenasia, you should consider the fact that others may not share your beliefs and have their own lives or deaths to consider.
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John Hof
In a world where elder abuse is just coming to the fore, why would we be considering legalizing a way to hide more and more of it? If killing the elderly when they might become useless and a burden to the living becomes commonplace, then the line protecting the vulnerable gets moved forever. Who would be next? The homeless, the drug addicted, the AIDS patients. Wait a minute. I seem to remember it was the AIDS patients were the ones pushing for Euthanasia years ago. Back in the days when the disease was a death sentence. Today with most patients living with AIDS surviving to ripe old ages, had euthanasia been available would they even be here to enjoy the life research has given them?

One more issue I have with this article is the shoddy journalism practiced by the writer. He took the liberty of quoting me when at no time did he even contact me for the story. How many other arbitrary quotes did he Google search in order to give this article an appearance of balance? The credibility of the entire story comes into question if he compiled it as nothing more than a "puff" piece promoting the good Mr. Ogden. Shame on the Straight for printing this without their usual journalistic excellence.
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Martin Dunphy
Regarding Mr. Hof's comment above:

I am an editor of the article in question. Mr. Hof is a well-known anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia campaigner, a spokesperson for Campaign Life Coalition, and someone who is abundantly on the record as speaking against Mr. Ogden's viewpoint, facts that he probably should have made clear, given the tone of his comment.
Those who were interviewed by the author for this article and included in the piece are so identified. It is abundantly clear, when describing the interview subjects' homes, for instance, that this was the case.
The "quote" in question was only a couple of words in a paraphrased statement that did not improperly give the impression that the author had contacted Mr. Hof when he hadn't. It was merely added to a paragraph stating well-known opposing viewpoints, and does not, in fact, constitute "shoddy journalism" or call into question "the credibility of the entire story".
We stand behind the integrity of the writer--a long-time contributor to the Georgia Straight who has won probably more writing awards than any other freelancer in British Columbia--and our editing process.
Daniel Wood provided the names and contact numbers for all those he interviewed who appeared in the story, as well as those he interviewed for research who did not appear in the piece.
Mr. Hof's disgruntlement seems to perhaps stem from the fact that he belongs to neither of those categories.
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Erik Danielsen
Back to the concentration camp talk again. Thank you John Hof and another dose of 'Christianly' fearmongering. I am sure that AIDS patients worldwide are crying tears of joy over the thought that Campaign Life Coalition is standing up for their right to not have any rights when it comes to terminal illness and the freedom to die in a peaceful manner in the end stages of the said illness. Perhaps we can find a way to prolong the misery of pancreatic cancer patients, even more so than it already is, for a few more decades in case our friends at Pfizer decide to bless us with a new treatment. They'll be elated to hear the good news.

Look. Its pretty straight forward. The people who are suffering should get to make the decision in how they want to deal with it.

I am sure that Ogden could have contacted you, but I think the Straight's general readership can rest assured that he did NOT take you out of context in any way, shape or form. You and your affiliation are quite overt in your beliefs so you can probably spare us the crocodile tears. Personally, I've seen enough.
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