Opinion » Maxed Out

Good Life; Good Death — Part I

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When it's my time to go, I want to die like my grandfather, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like the other passengers in his car. Or so the old joke goes.

Dying in my sleep would be good. I think most of us agree it would be our top choice or at least a close second. Perhaps it harkens back to that insane, now I lay me down to sleep prayer so many children are taught by well-meaning parents. Frankly the whole idea of, if I should die before I wake, was enough to make falling asleep a real childhood nightmare. But now that I'm old enough to appreciate the ugliness of so many of its alternatives, what seemed twisted then has become preferable now.

Of course, there's a lot to be said for those people lucky enough to enjoy a spirited, top to bottom run down Whistler Mountain then hit the ground dead, still in their bindings, outside Dusty's or the GLC. It seems to happen every year or so, and other than missing out on that final refreshing beverage, I'd probably choose it over dying in my sleep. But a top to bottom non-stop run, a couple of cold ones at the bar and leave someone else with the tab? Yeah, baby, that's got to be the ultimate.

Unfortunately, we don't get to choose. Well, most of us don't.

Ruth Goodman chose. In a very public way, Ruth Goodman ended her life earlier this month with an overdose of barbiturates in her Vancouver home. While there's nothing terribly unusual about someone — especially someone elderly; she was 91-years-old — choosing suicide, Ms. Goodman's suicide was terribly unusual.

She wanted us to talk about it. She wanted us to think about it. She wanted us to consider why we can make the choice to end our lives but we can't make the choice to have someone, preferably a physician, help us do it in such a way we're unlikely to either botch the effort and end up living a dreadful nightmare or do it successfully but in a dreadful, messy manner.

Although she had Crohn's disease, she was by no means terminally ill. She did not have intolerable pain or a terminal condition other than life itself. She was not — although there will be those who disagree — insane. She was a happy grandma who lived in her own home and still led an independent life.

She was also a fighter and fierce believer in personal freedom. She and her husband were Americans who decided in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, Vancouver might be just their kind of town. To protest that war, to protest the racism that had been played out in bloody riots in major American cities since 1964, and to give her family a better life, she and her husband left the Land of the Free and moved to the Great White North.

According to the Vancouver Province, she worked at an abortion clinic in Vancouver, supported women's rights and was involved in causes championed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. She was also a member of Death with Dignity, an Aussie organization advocating right-to-die issues.

But she was getting old, she could feel her independence slipping away and she'd made a decision years ago to not go gently into that good night. She decided to end her life as she'd lived it — on her own terms and while she still had the wherewithal to both decide and act.

Her family knew this and wasn't surprised when she informed them in late January the time had come.

The letter she left behind said, "... I am simply old, tired and becoming dependent after a wonderful life of independence.... I am writing this letter to advocate for a change in the law so that all will be able to make this choice."

The problem is, everybody can make that choice. Suicide is legal. Assisting it isn't.

Last June, the B.C. Supreme Court — the province's trial level court — ruled the federal law prohibiting assisting a suicide discriminates against those with disabilities. It held that doctors should be allowed to assist terminally ill patients to die.

But even if that ruling survives the appeal filed by the federal government, it doesn't come anywhere close to what Ruth Goodman was writing about. She wants people who are perfectly healthy, or perhaps imperfectly healthy, to have the right to go to their doctor — assuming their doctor would be willing to participate — and have them either administer or prescribe a lethal dosage of some drug.

That is unprecedented. No jurisdiction in the world that allows physician-assisted suicide permits it as a matter of choice. It is a remedy available only to those with terminal illnesses — and usually in the final stages — or suffering incurable, intolerable pain.

If one looks to the struggles currently playing out in the marijuana wars, physician assisted suicide is analogous to medicinal marijuana. In places where you can get a doctor to help you die you have to prove you're sound of mind and terminally unsound of body or suffering intolerable pain for which there is no relief. To get a pot script the burden of proof is a little more loosey-goosey but you still have to go through the motions.

But what Ms. Goodman is advocating is more akin to being able to walk into your neighbourhood 7-Eleven and buy a pack of Maui Wowee just to get high because, well, because it feels good. "Doc, I'm tired of livin'. Give me a hot shot on the mainline."

It all brings to mind the "going home" sequence in the film Soylent Green, where people tired of living in the future dystopia could opt for a comfortable suicide, surrounded by IMAX-like images and the soothing strains of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Grieg.

Even the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, who brought the case overturning part of the federal law against assisted suicide and who is handling the appeal against the government is hesitant to embrace Ms. Goodman's position. Grace Pastine, the lawyer handling the case, is reported as saying while it raises interesting questions, the BCCLA doesn't have a legal position or opinion on it.

So, is it crazy for a healthy old person to want to die before they spiral into dependence and, in their own mind, degradation?

Is it morally wrong?

If I'm not lucky enough to leave that unpaid bar bill at Dusty's, it seems neither crazy nor immoral to me. And I think it deserves another week of my time and space.

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