The practices of euthanasia and assisted suicide among medical practitioners in Canada are deemed illegal by the Canadian law. The concepts of such law were challenged by the perception of individuals’ rights to self-determination. There is a big difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia. Assisted suicide is the act of an individual, typically someone who suffers from a terminal illness, in intentionally killing himself with the assistance of another individual. An example would be a doctor prescribing drugs to the individual with the understanding that the patient plans to overdose on them and killing himself in the process. Euthanasia on the other hand differs from assisted suicide because in this case someone other than the patient ends the patient’s life to lessen the pain and suffering. This paper aims to provide an in-depth analysis to support why assisted suicide should be legalized in Canada. It is an individual’s legal right to determine how he wishes to live and end his life. The advancement of medical technology allows doctors and nurses to prolong the lives of patients but it has always been the choice of individuals if they wish to receive such treatment or choose to end their lives (CBC News, 2009). Arguments with regards to the legalization of assisted suicide will be examined to further understand how they relate to nursing and health care in Canada.
Supporters of assisted suicide challenge and pressure the Canadian government in decriminalizing the Criminal Code of Canada section 241(b) where the act of assisted suicide by an individual is considered punishable by law (Kluge, 2000). Supporters argue that “everyone has the right to self-determination subject only to an unjust infringement on the equal and competing rights of others” (Kluge, 2000). They argue that such act should be legalized on the grounds of equality and justice where patients with terminal illnesses may lose their voluntary motor control thus becoming handicaps. Under the principle of equality and justice “everyone should be treated equally, and deviations from equality of treatment are permissible only to achieve equity and justice” (Kluge, 2000). In 1992, Sue Rodriguez stirred up controversy when she participated in a legal court battle to decriminalizing assisted suicide. Rodriguez was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease which in the long run will make her a handicap (CBC News, 2009). She argued that the law banning assisted suicide must be changed because the decision to die whether the act of killing was done by the individual or was assisted by another is the autonomous right of the person who wishes to die. Though the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Rodriguez’s argument, her cause sparked movements to challenge the law by legalizing assisted suicide. Rodriguez committed suicide with the help of an unknown doctor in 1994.
On the other hand a difference between suicide, an act of an individual killing himself, and assisted suicide, an individual being assisted by another individual in killing himself, has been defined by the Canadian law where the former is not considered a crime but medical staff-assisted suicide is deemed illegal (Whiting, 2002). According to the Criminal Code of Canada section 241(b) “Any one who aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years” (Kluge, 2000). It is the legal right of any individual to have personal autonomy and self-determination thus assisted suicide should be legalized. Systems that would be assisting any individual to end his life must carefully be monitored and regulated to protect those who are vulnerable and are not in their right minds to decide. People should be able to determine for themselves how they wish to live and end their lives thus even if the law protects the value of human life, it is the individual’s right to decide the value of his own life.
Nurses’ involvement in the act of assisted suicide may not only include the administering of lethal drugs but may also include the registering of the patient’s request for assisted suicide, participation on the decision making process, performing the suicide or assisting the patient to end his life and aftercare (Van de Scheur, 1998). Though most of the attention is focused on physicians in terms of performance of the act, in reality nurses are more commonly exposed to patients’ request to end their lives (De Beer, Gastmans and Dierckx de Casterle, 2004). The legalization of assisted suicide is such an important issue to nursing and health care because the credibility and license of the medical staff are at risk whenever they agree to the request of a patient in ending his life. Currently, assisted suicide is illegal in Canada and the law punishes anyone who assists patients in committing suicide. Such act still prevails in the medical community but is executed privately. By legalizing assisted suicide, doctors and nurses alike will be less at risk in servicing patients and fulfilling their requests to kill themselves with assistance. Though it is important that medical practitioners evaluate the mental conditions and abilities of patients in decision making, assisted suicide should be decriminalized because a request of a patient with a sound mind is a form of autonomy especially if the said individual suffers from a terminal illness and will be deemed a handicap sooner or later because of such condition.
Debates and controversies over the decriminalization of assisted suicide have been surfacing in the Canadian news for quite some time now. Supporters argue that the legalization of such act allows individuals to access their right to self-determination while those who oppose believe that most individuals who request to be assisted in committing suicide are vulnerable and are not in their right minds to decide for themselves thus they are not autonomous. Those who oppose the idea of decriminalizing assisted suicide argue that the Canadian government law protects the value society has on human life. Patients may claim that their requests and compliances to end their lives with the assistance of medical practitioners are their legal rights with regards to personal autonomy but Alex Schadenberg (2006) pointed out that individuals who suffer from chronic diseases and disabilities are less autonomous because they are vulnerable and susceptible to suggestions of other people. Assisted suicide should be decriminalized to protect medical practitioners who perform the act upon the request of patients from the law but the system must carefully be monitored in relation to morality. Such issue is important to nursing and health care because the legalization of assisted suicide will ease medical staff in performing such act thus they will no longer be in danger from being punish by the law in committing such.
CBC News. (2009). The Fight of the Right to Die. CBC News Canada. Web.
De Beer, T., Gastmans, C., and Dierckx de Casterle, B. (2004). Involvement of Nurses in Euthanasia: A Review of Literature. Journal of Medical Ethics, 30, 494-498.
Kluge, E. (2000). Assisted Suicide, Ethics and the Law: The Implication of Autonomy and Respect for Persons, Equality and Justice and Beneficence. In C. Prado (Eds.), Assisted Suicide: Canadian Perspectives (83 – 87). Ottowa, Canada: University of Ottowa Press.
Schadenberg, A. (2006). To Someone You Love?. Web.
Van de Scheur, A. (1998). The Role of the Nurse in Euthanasia: A Dutch Study. Nurse Ethics, 5, 497-508.
Whiting, R. (2002). A Natural Right to Die: Twenty-Three Centuries of Debate. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.