Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Assisted Suicide

The legalization of assisted suicide says a lot about Canadian society in 2015.  

Regardless of whether you agree that someone should be entitled to medical assistance to end their life or whether you think the safeguards around assisted suicide are sufficient, it is very clear that the concept of self autonomy and deciding for yourself what is right governs.  Doctors give options and the patient decides; and full disclosure by the medical professional is required.

The idea that people make their own decisions for themselves is now deeply engrained in Canadian society.  Society exists to foster individual choice and opportunity; the individual does not exist for society as a whole

This consensus is a new one.  Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" would seem incomprehensible to most people today.  A generation or two ago the idea that patients knew what was best and doctors should merely take direction was unknown.  I remember as a child having an older relative not told she had cancer – she figured it out pretty quickly – because the medical professionals thought such knowledge would be harmful.  "Father Knows Best" was a comedy from the 1950's but it reflects a general view that people were told what to do and did that.

This older perspective is very clearly seen in a movie from 1940 – Dr Kildare's Strange Case.  The movie is a pleasant enough piece of fluff with romance and light humour.  The central plot, however, involves a man who suffered a traumatic head injury and was brought to hospital without identification.

The injured man is able to talk and very firmly rejects surgery.  He does appear somewhat bewildered, but he is coherent enough to know where he was and that surgery was being proposed.   Despite the refusal doctors perform a dangerous brain operation after expressly noting that they are overriding the wishes of the patient.  The patient survives but appears to have suffered a serious loss of brain function perhaps as a result of the surgery.  Dr. Kildare, in what is portrayed as a heroic step, gives the patient insulin shock therapy which leads to a restoration of brain function.  All ends happily as the injured man is fully cured.

Looking back it is easy to criticize that old approach.  The insulin shock therapy, for example, ultimately proved quite useless, was extremely painful and often led to injury or death.  That said, the intent behind the therapy was not torture but cure.  But the "doctor knows best" approach was not premised on harming the patient but quite the reverse; the idea was that a patient was simply unable to make the right decision.  In many ways this concept recalls residential schools for aboriginal children – the concept behind residential schools was arguably benign – to allow aboriginal people to become fully equal partners with English and French Canadians.  And, of course, the unschooled and ignorant aboriginals could not possibly make correct decisions about the education of their children. 

Depriving people of their autonomy in making life choices leads to dreadful results.  In the medical field grave suffering and pain was imposed for no reason.  In the case of residential schools generations of children were abused and lost touch with their roots – and Canadians of all backgrounds suffer the consequences today.

Assisted suicide falls within the concept of self autonomy.  A person's life is their own and they make the decisions about whether and when to end it.  Regardless of what the law finally says about the nature of assisted suicide the underlying thesis remains self autonomy.

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