On October 10 the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld Canada’s ban on assisted suicide and euthanasia. This decision overturned a lower-court ruling of June 2013 which would have made both legal. This was a relief to me both personally and professionally. I was relieved personally as the son and twin brother of people with disabilities, and professionally as a researcher at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.
I was relieved because euthanasia and assisted suicide paint over the profundity of life with a disability or illness with the veneer of death. This shortchanges those of us who live with a disability and pressures us to die early.
Let me explain from my own experience.
I was born the fifth of five boys and a twin. My twin brother’s name is Brian. He, as best we can understand, suffered lack of oxygen at birth resulting in extensive brain damage and cerebral palsy. Brian can’t walk, can’t talk, can only see shadows at best and has the mental capacity of a three-month-old.
He moved to a group home when we were 18 years old. His care and feeding were becoming too much for my parents. He wears diapers and has been fed through a g-tube since that time. Brian relies on others to lift him in and out of his wheelchair.
All this to say that Brian can’t do much, but he also has a profound ability to be human. His smile lights up rooms. He has helped us (his brothers) to be more compassionate toward the vulnerable in our society. I hope that he lives long enough for my young children to learn the same lesson from him.
In 1994 my father was diagnosed with ALS, the same illness that took the lives of Gloria Taylor, Sue Rodriguez, and Lou Gehrig. My father had been a licensed mechanic and car dealer. ALS meant early retirement, which afforded him the time to read the Genome Project cover to cover twice. He also read through one brother’s PhD thesis until his hands couldn’t turn the pages anymore.
He lived reasonably well until almost the end, but he died suffocating as his lungs grew weaker. Suffice to say it was difficult. Quality palliative care would have made for a much better ending if it had been available.
We learned from our parents the beauty of a husband and wife devoted to one another. The care that mom gave to dad was, as one of her brothers said at my dad’s funeral, “beyond science.” We learned that increasing disability didn’t mean the end of dignity. Each loss of ability meant adjusting to a “new normal” for each of us. Through it all we knew that hurrying death along would have short-circuited these and other profound processes of letting go.
Look, then, at what’s happening in the Netherlands: a widow in her seventies is euthanized because she’s going blind. Legalizing assisted suicide (someone gets the medication, you take it) or euthanasia (someone puts the poison in your body) would have horrible consequences for Canadians with disabilities, the elderly, and the chronically ill.
If my dad lived in the Netherlands, how different would his experience have been if his ALS specialist doctors had offered to kill him?
In Belgium deaf twins were euthanized because they couldn’t bear the thought of going blind. I can’t help but think how my own twin would fare in that country.
Cases like this scream loud and long that life with a disability is simply not worth living and that death is the answer. That is a very deadly lie. For the sake of vulnerable Canadians this lie must not gain the force of law in Canada.