As our courts again consider calls to allow assisted suicide, a
new EFC report offers insight and hope. By Debra Fieguth
When physicians discovered in November that Scott Routley, the 39-year-old London, Ont., man who has been in a “persistent vegetative state” for 12 years, could communicate with them, the news was rightly seen as a medical and scientific breakthrough. Significantly, Routley was able to reassure the doctors
he feels no pain.
And when 15-year-old Amanda Todd took her own life after
years of what she felt was unbearable bullying, her tragic death
caused an outpouring of compassion and increased talk of the
importance of suicide prevention for teens. No 15-year-old should
have to endure such severe emotional and mental anguish.
But when Gloria Taylor, a B.C. woman with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s
Disease), lobbied for her right to have a physician assist in her
death, she was seen by many as a courageous leader and advocate
of an individual’s right to die when and how she chooses. Taylor
died naturally of an infection in October, but her cause remains
in the legal arena.
The media has treated these events as separate issues. But
all of them have something in common. They have brought into
sharper focus – and greater confusion – the issues surrounding
the end of life and whose decision it is to determine it.
Canadians benefit from medical advances that prolong life
and alleviate physical pain, but ironically there is a parallel push
in society to end life sooner because of psychological and social
suffering, or what many health professionals now refer to as
Contrary to popular assumptions, most dying patients do
not experience intolerable pain, says Vancouver palliative care
physician Dr. Margaret Cottle. For example, “ALS patients tend
to die a more peaceful death. They don’t suffocate, they don’t
choke to death.”
What terminal patients experience is fear: fear of abandon-
ment, fear of being a burden to their loved ones, fear of losing
control over their bodies, fear of the possibility of pain at the end.
Our confusion around these issues is compounded because
“We’ve medicalized suffering,” says Sister Nuala Kenny, a Halifax
pediatrician and bioethicist at Dalhousie University.
It helps to consider emotional and physical pain separately.
new eFC report
One person may be “dying and have no suffering,” while another
may “have very little physical pain and have huge suffering.”
“If you have chest pain,” Kenny explains, “I’ve got stuff I can
do for you. If you have heartache because your son is on the street
prostituting himself for drugs in Vancouver, I should recognize
the pain in your heart. But I have no prescription for that.”
Kenny’s research found “psychological distress and care
needs” are by far the greatest factors for patients requesting as-
That research highlights a fundamental question – “Why do people
request assisted suicide?” – notes Faye Sonier, legal counsel at The
Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and its Centre for Faith
and Public Life in Ottawa. Recently she supervised research for
a new EFC discussion paper called Palliative Care and End of Life
Therapies (free at www.theEFC.ca/ResourcesOnEuthanasia.)