A Time to Die

A feeble, elderly Inuit woman nobly insists her tribe leave her to die alone on an ice floe when she becomes too weak and sick to keep up with their pace. I puzzled in horror over that story in my Grade 4 reader years ago. My young emotions were manipulated by the “death with dignity” argument yet somehow I knew it was wrong.

Evidently early education in situation ethics is effective. What was raised as a question in the minds of young people back then becomes law today. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled a law that makes it illegal for anyone to help people end their own lives should be amended to allow doctors to help in specific situations.

As a 10-year-old I wasn’t equipped to question whether the Inuit story ever really occurred. From the little I know about aboriginal cultures, they treat their elders with great reverence. I wasn’t prepared to consider the alternatives to “mercy killing” as it was called then. Nor was I able to recognize that one essential way humans are set apart from animals is our caring for the weak.

God alone is the Life-giver and in his hands alone must be the ending of that life. Anything else is called murder.

There’s a chilling scene in P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men that sticks with me years after reading it. All over the world, babies have stopped coming and the aged and infirm have no one with strength enough to care for them. Governments have taken to sending the old and sick on a raft out to sea, something they call a “Quietus”. It certainly does quiet them, those querulous, inconvenient, time-and-resource-gobbling scraps of unproductive humanity. It also quiets the guilt of those who remain.

I see the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow physician-assisted suicide to those who request it, in the same vein.

According to a Feb. 6 online CBC report, “The ruling only applies to competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly consent to ending their lives.” For now. Once we take jurisdiction over life and death, the details are entirely negotiable.

The ruling’s wording invites court challenges based on myriad exceptions.

  • When she was able to talk, my mother said she wanted her life ended before she became incapacitated.
  • I’m sure Dad wouldn’t have wanted to suffer this way.
  • My wife wouldn’t have wanted to be a burden.
  • I don’t want to see my sister suffer like this.
  • My husband wouldn’t have wanted his whole fortune to be spent waiting for him to die.

“The vast majority of Canadians — 84 per cent — support physician-assisted death with appropriate caveats,” the CBC report said. One wonders how the question on that poll was worded.

“There does need to be some Criminal Code provision, I think, to prevent abuse,” Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who became a quadriplegic after an accident in 1996 says. “I don’t want people, because they have a bad hair day, to get their car mechanic to take them down.”

But with our current system of justice entirely governed by case law, it’s only a matter of time before all the “appropriate caveats” that people thought were safeguards against abuses will be dismantled. Exactly that has occurred in Belgium (and, I expect, elsewhere where the law has allowed assisted suicide) since 2002; the slide from “appropriate caveats” to involuntary euthanasia, euthanasia for treatable mental illnesses, euthanasia for children.

My cousin’s wife has a different perspective since her young husband, father to her 5 young children was dying of cancer. In the midst of his suffering, something vital occurred that could have been lost if this law had been in place then.


Always we’re told assisted suicide is concerned with dignity. Yet here is an inspirational woman whose family shows us what it means to treat her with dignity despite a degenerative disease.


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