Dying with dignity is the biggest shift in morality in a generation

Canada’s example has lessons for other countries, says Steven Fletcher

THE ECONOMIST

Dying with dignity is the biggest shift in morality in a generation

WHAT it means to be alive versus living a full life are not abstract thought exercises to me. In 1996, at the age of 23, I became a quadriplegic. As a recent engineering graduate from the University of Manitoba, driving to work at a mining job, I hit a moose with my car. In an instant I was completely paralysed from the neck down. 

Moose are not part of the normal human experience anywhere else. But in many parts of Canada there are far more moose than there are hockey players. This enormous, majestic, stupid creature ran in front of my vehicle and went through the windshield. This quintessential Canadian car accident was described in my auto insurance as “An Act of God.” Really?  God? What kind of God would allow something like this to happen to me or anyone else?

What does it mean to be a quadriplegic? In my case, it is complete paralysis from the neck down. I cannot feel my body below the neck. No pain. No pleasure. No heat. No cold. No diaphragm to breathe. Nothing. All that remains is a continuous burning from nerve endings meeting a disconnected spinal cord.

The practical result is the need for 24-hour care, no privacy for any bodily functions or getting dressed, or anything else that I took for granted, including my freedom, not the political freedom, but freedom to use my body to live life. And then there’s pain, physical pain. The kind of pain where you think your head is going to explode and would give anything for such an explosion if the pain would just stop. The emotional pain never dies.

There are many practical issues. Who is going to pay for the 24-hour care?  Will I be institutionalised? Will I be a burden on my family or society? How about life’s pleasures?  

I was able to find some solutions. In 2004 I became the first permanently disabled member of the Canadian Parliament. In that time I learned the value of life can be measured in many ways. In my first federal election I was asked on the radio why would anyone vote for Steven Fletcher versus the other guys? My response: “The people...would rather have someone paralysed from the neck down than the neck up.”

In 2013, after nine years as a cabinet minister, parliamentary secretary and shadow minister for health while in opposition, I found myself no longer shackled by the bonds of cabinet solidarity and party discipline. As a backbench Tory, I was able to finally introduce the private members' bills into parliament that ultimately resulted in the changes in the law that ended the prohibition on medical assistance in dying in Canada.  

The first bill legislated for assistance in dying. The second bill was for gathering empirical evidence on the how, why, when, where, and who takes part in an end of life procedure under the premise that good data lead to better public policy.

If a person is diagnosed with a terrible terminal illness, or is in intolerable pain, why force that person to suffer? 

It should be clarified that there is a big difference between suicide, euthanasia, and dying with dignity. Suicide is self-inflicted. Euthanasia is ending life without consent, as may be the case with an ill pet animal. Dying with dignity is neither suicide nor euthanasia; it is respect for the individual.

Society should not view end-of-life measures as a budgetary way to reduce costs. Those who wish to live should be given the opportunity to do so and to live meaningful, productive lives and reach their full potential as a human being. To do anything less is cruel and not consistent with the values of Western civilisation.

But individuals of sound mind must be allowed to make their own decisions for themselves. An adult who, for very good reasons, consents to die should have that right. Frostbite would not be a good reason. 

In a liberal democracy we don’t try and dictate how people should live so why does society try to dictate how people should die? Dying with dignity is the greatest shift in morality in Canada in this generation. As long as the shift is in the context of empathy, compassion, choice, hope and common sense other countries should learn from our example. 

Steven Fletcher is a member of the Queen’s Privy Council in Canada. He served for 11 years as a member of the Canadian parliament, where he had many roles including five years as a cabinet minister. At present he is a member of the legislative assembly in the province of Manitoba.

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