In today's Toronto Star, I address the issue of assisted suicide -- and the argument that euthanasia is practiced so often in hospitals in all but name, that we should consider simply legalizing it.
Starving to death in a hospital bed is a horrible way to die, says an expert on the ethics of death, and it may be time to allow more overt ways of ending the lives of the terminally ill.
Wayne Sumner, a University of Toronto philosophy professor writing a book on assisted suicide, says while euthanasia is illegal in Canada, terminally ill patients or their families can refuse food, water and life-sustaining treatment.
"We tip-toe up to the barrier," says Wayne Sumner, who will speak about assisted suicide at UofT's Joint Centre for Bioethics on Wednesday afternoon.
"We peer over the edge, but seem reluctant to take that next step."
Sumner says there is no practical difference between letting someone starve to death, as is now done when feeding tubes are removed, and the more overt act of instructing a doctor to inject a lethal dose of medication to hasten death.
"If someone is refusing food and water, it's hard to see that the intention is anything but death," he says.
As such, he says, Canada should consider taking euthanasia out of the Criminal Code.
The peg for the story is a seminar to be given this afternoon by the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics at their new home at 155 College St., Ste. 754, in Toronto. The centre often webcasts its seminars. Sumner will outline how he came to his conclusions, by addressing the agruments against allowing assisted suicide. Dr. Lawrence Librach of the Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care at Mount Sinai Hospital will provide commentary.
Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, does not agree with Sumner that taking the next step to allow euthanasia would be the compassionate thing to do, as a way of alleviating suffering for both patients and family under the current system.
Every patient, she says, has the right to refuse treatment or food, and let nature take its course.
"With euthanasia, you're not letting anything take its course," she says.
It is too big a leap to say that because people can refuse treatment or nourishment, they should actively take their own lives, she says.
"We all want to be compassionate, but we want to make sure we're doing the right thing, too."
A private member's bill by Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde to allow doctor-assisted suicide is currently before Parliament. Assisted suicide is allowed in three U.S. states – Oregon, Montana and Washington state – and in Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
A Swiss clinic, Dignitas, has become a destination for people around the world seeking physician-assisted suicide, with more than 1,000 people travelling to Zurich since the clinic opened 12 years ago – including 10 from Canada. The Swiss government is now considering restricting suicides by foreigners, with Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf saying last October, "As a country, we aren't interested in attracting suicide tourism."
Sumner said the move could put political pressure on other governments to allow assisted suicide, since people will soon no longer have the option of flying out of the country for the procedure.