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Assisted dying
Life & Death
4 min read

The cold truth of Canadian lives not worth living

Canada’s implementation of medical assistance in dying concerns M. Ciftci, showing that a society consider some lives not worth living. Part of the How to Die Well series.

M. Ciftci has a PhD in political theology from the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book about church-state relations that will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

A IV drip bag hangs from a medical stand.
Marcelo Leal on Unsplash.

Alan Nichols’ application for euthanasia mentions only one health condition as the reason for his request: hearing loss. “Alan was basically put to death,” according to his brother. He was hospitalized after being found dehydrated and malnourished in his house. He asked his brother to “bust him out” of the hospital as soon as possible. A month after being admitting, he was euthanized through MAID (medical assistance in dying), despite the desperate objections of his family and his primary health practitioner. They were informed of the procedure over the phone only four days before it took place. They have since reported Alan’s case to the police; they argue he was not in a fit state of mind to understand the procedure or make decisions for himself. He had no life-threatening conditions. He was vulnerable. 

Canada’s relaxed laws around MAID came to international attention when CTV News reported that a fifty-one-year-old woman chose MAID after failing for two years to find housing that would allow her to manage her multiple chemical sensitivities. Despite the best efforts of friends and even her doctors to get her suitable housing in Toronto, letters left behind documented her desperate yet fruitless search for help. She begged officials at all layers of government to help find an apartment free from the chemicals and cigarette and marijuana smoke that worsened her symptoms. “The government sees me as expendable trash, a complainer, useless and a pain in the a**,” she said in a video days before her death. 

These are only some of the terrible stories that have been reported after Canada became the first Commonwealth country to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia. Advocates of MAID will point to how comfortable Canadians are with it. As a recent poll revealed, MAID is supported by 73 per cent of Canadians, with 27 per cent supporting MAID even if the only affliction is poverty, 28 per cent for homelessness, and 20% for any reason whatsoever. Those numbers may shift as disability activists and medical professionals continue to raise the alarm over the consequences of growing numbers choosing MAID, from 2,838 deaths in 2017 to 10,064 in 2021. 

MAID was introduced in 2016... Only those suffering from incurable diseases whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” were eligible, initially. 

There are two reasons why the Canadian example teaches us to remain firmly opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in the UK.  

The first is that the slippery slope in this case is real. Campaigners for Dignity in Dying claim they want only the legalisation of assisted suicide, not of euthanasia. The latter involves a doctor directly administering lethal drugs, without requiring the patient’s participation. (MAID permits both, although euthanasia is the method used in 99 per cent of cases.) They argue there is no evidence that legalising assisted suicide in the UK would lead to a loosening of laws over time. But this is contradicted by the timeline of events in Canada.  

MAID was introduced in 2016 following the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in 2015 that the criminalisation of assisted suicide violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Only those suffering from incurable diseases whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” were eligible, initially. But the MAID evangelists did not wait long before complaining that this was too restrictive. The courts obliged, and in 2019 the court of Quebec found the “reasonably foreseeable” condition to contravene the Charter. In 2021 the laws were changed to allow MAID for those whose natural death was not foreseeable, but who have a condition considered intolerable by the applicant. Those suffering only from mental illnesses will be eligible for MAID in March 2024.  

The slope becomes more slippery still: the government is considering further expansion to allow “mature minors”, vaguely defined as children mature enough to make their own treatment decisions, to ask to be killed, even against a parent’s wishes.     

A society that kills those who ask to be killed has already made a choice to consider some lives not worth living,

The second lesson is about what kind of society we want to be. For a doctor to present the option of being killed, which Canadian doctors are now obliged to do whenever “medically relevant”, even if the patient does not bring it up first, does not expand patients’ freedom. It is rather an invitation to despair. This is frequently forgotten when some think that denying patients the choice to seek death is “imposing Christian values” as one cleric of the Anglican Church of Canada said. Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and others have opposed MAID because a society that kills those who ask to be killed has already made a choice to consider some lives not worth living, and to invite those already made vulnerable by their pain and distress to see themselves as a burden to others. Not to mention the perverse incentives created to reduce medical and palliative care.  

We can and should support those who are frail and in need of care at the end of their lives to die with dignity, without hastening their deaths, without deeming their lives no longer worth living. Dame Cicely Saunders and other pioneers of the hospice movement have shown us what an alternative to assisted suicide and euthanasia would look like. Hospices put into practice the parable of the Good Samaritan, who responded with pity to the man beaten by robbers, bandaging his wounds and giving him a place to rest and receive care. Jesus tells the parable to show what it means to be a good neighbour to someone and how to react with compassion to suffering. What would have been the message of the parable if the Samaritan had instead reacted to the sight of the suffering man by reaching for his dagger?    

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Assisted dying
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Life & Death
5 min read

The careless conflation of independence, autonomy and dignity

As Jersey begins to legalise assisted dying, there’s keyword confusion.
A elderly women in a care home stands and places her hands on the shoulders of a seated woman.
Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

Reviewing Canada’s legislation on assisted dying, one anonymously authored article raises the concern: “Does it make dying with dignity easier than living with dignity?” This insightful question cuts to the centre of the debate: dignity. Or more particularly, the unwitting conflation of dignity with independence, and of independence with autonomy.  

As Jersey becomes the first place in the British Isles to begin the process of legalising assisted dying, I feel that we should listen carefully as to how and where these terms are being used, both in the formal debate, and in the commentary that surrounds it. The States Assembly in Jersey voted to allow the development of assisted dying legislation for those with six months to live (or twelve months if their condition is neurodegenerative). A second vote to make assisted dying available more broadly to those who experience conditions that entail “unbearable suffering” was defeated by a narrower margin. Reading the flurry of press releases that followed the vote, these keywords, autonomy, independence, and dignity, are everywhere. But are we really thinking about what these words communicate?  

People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position.

The word dignity comes from the Latin word dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, and this is still the primary definition given to the English word dignity today. The OED has it as “the quality of being worthy or honourable”, immediately followed by reference to “honourable or high estate”. If this is so, then dignity is not something that can be bought, nor assumed – it is a status conferred upon someone by the esteem in which other people hold them. The haughtiest person in the world can still be esteemed undignified, as can the richest. Moreover, the opposite is also true: we are never prevented from conferring dignity upon, and esteeming the worthiness of, those who live the humblest of lives.   

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves – do many of us not quietly associate the idea of becoming rich and powerful with becoming dignified? Do we not tend to assume the worthiness of those in high office – at least until we meet them and realise pretty quickly that they all put their trousers on one leg at a time, the same as the rest of us. This association happens because we have such a tendency to conflate dignity with independence (the ability to live without assistance from others) and autonomy (the ability to make one’s own decisions, and not have those decisions limited or interfered with). People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position. It is society who sees the autonomy of those in high status, and esteems it as dignified.    

Does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified? 

Repeatedly ancient wisdom, in the bible, warns us not to assume that dignity comes with the freedom of wealth or power. All the great ‘heroes’ of that book suffer their indignities. Fresh from the success of his Ark project, Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Elated from a victory against an enemy, King David dances half-naked through the streets. These are just two examples of the catalogue of embarrassments and mishaps that beset nearly all the kings and leaders whose stories are told as part of the Christian story. One after another, they stumble and struggle with life and leadership. The apostle Paul explains that this is because God uses the foolish things of this world to shame human pride, “for even the foolishness of God is still wiser than human wisdom.” Therefore, Paul argues, God chooses to speak to us through the weak and the lowly things and people of this world. Never was this demonstrated so clearly as when Jesus was born in a draughty stable, lived a life of poverty, and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  

But what has all this to do with the debate over assisted dying? Well, I am struck by how often the idea of losing one’s independence (through disabling or terminal illness) is conflated with losing one’s dignity, and so dying through personal choice (autonomy) is presented as regaining it. One campaign group that speaks to this debate even calls itself ‘Dignity in Dying’ – but does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified?  

Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone. 

The Dean of Jersey, the Very Reverend Mike Keirle, has spoken of his concern that the change in legislation will make vulnerable people feel pressured to end their lives. Examples from Canada, where physician assisted dying is already available, show that his concern is not unfounded. In 2022, Canadian veteran and Paralympian Christine Gauthier phoned her caseworker to chase up the over-due installation of her new wheelchair ramp. She then describes how she was horrified to find herself being advised to consider assisted dying instead.  

"It is remotely just what they're doing,” says Gauthier, “exhausting us to the point of no return. […] I was like, 'Are you serious?' Like that easy, you're going to be helping me to die but you won't help me to live?"

Gauthier is not alone – she spoke out when she learned that four other Canadian veterans had reported similar experiences. In these unhappy moments, one can see how dangerous the assumption can be – the assumption that no one would want to live a life of needing help. Here are disabled people who do want to live, and this assumption, this careless conflation of independence, autonomy, and dignity, leaves them fighting for their right to do so. Why should anyone have to fight or even speak for their right not to commit suicide? It is little wonder that disabled actress, Liz Carr, describes assisted dying legislation as “terrifying” for disabled people. 

I respect that there are terminally ill people, and those who love them, who speak from a desire to end their suffering; it is clear that people on all sides of the debate need to have this difficult and emotionally charged conversation. But whatever the eventual outcome in terms of legislation, we must be careful that it is not based on careless assumptions, or on the conflation of one thing with an entirely different other. Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone – it is a state that can be conferred whenever, and upon whomever society chooses to confer it. Autonomy is the matter in question – we are talking about autonomy in dying. And whatever happens, we should by no means legislate in a way that leaves disabled people esteemed unworthy, left open to the indignity of fighting for their right to live.