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Supreme Court of Canada puts death up front

Part one of ‘Dead of Winter,’ a series on death, mourning and rituals

Life is the ultimate time-limited offer. The value of individual moments is deepened by the knowledge of life’s temporariness.

Or that’s how it should work, anyway. The fact is, as a society and as individuals, we have largely chosen to go about our days as though we are immortal. If we really thought about how limited our time is, we might spend less of it playing Candy Crush.

Death is something we try quite successfully to sequester from life. To various extents, we hide it from the kids and avoid talking about it with those we suspect may be closest to it — the old or ill.

Moreover, as generations of Canadians have moved from farm to city, our daily interactions with the circle of life in the animal world have become more removed. Over the same decades, our views of religion, creation, evolution, science and life itself have changed. As I repeatedly note, British Columbians are among the most religiously unaffiliated people on earth — and this impacts our view of the world around us, our place in it and what happens after we die, including how our lives are commemorated by those left behind.

Because we tend to move through our days in a haze of denial that it might end, or that the lives of those around us might end, it can come as a particularly shocking reality when death suddenly interrupts our revelries and busyness.

I have been planning for months to write a series on death and the rituals around it, on the belief that there are plenty of issues to unpack here and we should be talking more openly about them.

Then the Supreme Court of Canada brought down a major judgment this month, throwing our country into what should become a momentous discussion about end-of-life issues. In overturning the laws that made physician-assisted death illegal, the court opened a dramatic new era in end-of-life options for Canadians.

In a way, the court has handed Canadians a fait accompli that makes assisted suicide legal (unless the feds invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause) and yet, in other ways, it leaves many questions unanswered. For example, the court decision addresses patients with “grievous and irremediable” conditions, but this may not necessary mean “terminal.” Further, the pain that justifies assisted suicide is not limited to the physical but may also include conditions such as depression, which raises other issues. And the court left vague the process by which the decision to end a life is to be made and who must be included in the discussion beyond the individual patient. Then there are issues around the term free and informed consent.

I worry about the proverbial slippery slope. I’m not sure all or most Canadians understand the line between assisted suicide and euthanasia. And we approach that line whenever assisted suicide is chosen based on even a whiff of duress or anything beyond what is best for the patient — which, most obviously, could take the form of “not wanting to be a burden.”

Many of us have seen, even during times of extreme illness, people who still experience great joy and meaning, so the idea that we face either all joyous health or all ill misery fails to capture the ups and downs of real life, even as it nears its end. The cost-benefit analysis of life and death must be left to the individual themselves. And this is where my reservations subside somewhat. For all the caveats and concerns about slippery slopes, there are enough cases where it is simply inhumane to withhold relief when it is demanded, even when we know that there is only one way to relieve the suffering.

It is worth noting that religious opposition — most fervently from the Catholic church — represents a sort of shift in itself. Decades ago, when new medical technologies and treatments were emerging, some critics contended that these interventions were stepping into the realm once left to God. Now, the removal of life-extending procedures (or the administration of life-ending ones) is criticized for essentially the same reason: people are playing God.

Religion aside, polls suggest a vast majority of Canadians are open to the idea of physician-assisted suicide. For me, the argument that tips the scale is a crude and simple one. When assisted suicide is illegal, we force people to endure pain and suffering that we would never allow our household pets to withstand.

This series, which will explore dying, death, mourning and their rituals, was not envisioned as a reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision. Yet this decision and the national discussion it is supposed to invite just demonstrate how, in life, you never know what might happen. And maybe these columns will contribute in a small way to the dialogue we should be having.

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