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05/15/2013

Right-to-die expands in U.S.

GloriaTaylor
Gloria Taylor, who died in October, fought to overturn Canadian law regarding assisted suicide. (Star file photo)

We Canadians typically consider ourselves more politically left-leaning than our American neighbours.

But when it comes to laws governing physician-assisted suicide, we stand increasingly to their right.

This week, Vermont became the third U.S. state to allow a terminally-ill patient to seek assistance in ending their own life. The bill, which awaits only the governor’s signature to become law, confers upon patients with no more than six months to live the controversial right to ask their doctor for a lethal drug dose.

Terminally ill patients in Oregon and Washington already have that option. And other U.S. states are debating the move.

All of them follow in the footsteps of European countries including Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, all of which have all adopted liberal assisted death regimes.

“It looks like the tide is really turning,” says Wanda Morris, executive director of Dying With Dignity, a Canadian advocacy group seeks the legalization of assisted suicide in Canada.

Not so much in Canada, though.  

Despite a steady crescendo of public debate over self-chosen death, the federal Tories have refused to touch the thorny issue.

That political reality does not, however, mean Canadians themselves are more conservative than Americans on the issue. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.

A recent Angus Reid poll found 80 per cent of Canadians support allowing a doctor to assist in suicide compared to 56 per cent of Americans — a suggestion that Canada’s political reality conflicts with the views of its citizenry.  

“If we had had a similar vehicle of ballot initiatives in Canada it would already be done,” says Morris. “What we’re seeing is there hasn’t been a mechanism.”

Even though those who assist in a planned death in Canada face the threat of long jail sentences, they are happening here — quietly.

A 12-part investigative series in the Star last year documented an undercurrent of Canadians choosing to end their lives quietly and home, sometimes with right-to-die advocates sitting with them as the act is committed.

Others are travelling to a controversial Swiss clinic which commits assisted suicides legally.

Amid federal government intransigence on the issue, the Quebec government is flirting with the notion of sidestepping the Criminal Code with legislation that would make physician assisted suicide a medical decision between a patient and their doctor.

Meanwhile, the case of Gloria Taylor, a B.C. woman at the centre of a legal fight to overturn right-to-die laws in Canada, continues despite her death in October.

Consistent with the American model for assisted suicide laws, Vermont citizens with an “incurable and irreversible disease” and a wish to end their own lives will require two medical opinions and a 17-day waiting period before filling a lethal prescription.

Assisted death reform isn’t getting a smooth ride everywhere in the U.S. Similar laws have failed to pass in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine.

And there remains vocal opposition from religious organizations and advocates for the elderly and vulnerable in both countries.

“We do see a big push for legalization and the question to me is why is it now in history that this is occurring?” says Alex Schadenberg, executive director of Canada’s Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. “Canadians fear dying in pain. That’s a natural fear that all Canadians and Americans have. The question is, is this the way to deal with it or should we be looking at the way we care for the dying?”

Robert Cribb is an investigative journalist at the Star. Follow him on Twitter @thecribby

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