February 20th, 2015
Back in the early days of AIDS, before treatments made life possible or even potentially long like it is now, people died a lot, and often horrifically. It’s not a pleasant thing to remember, but that was the way it went. Russel Ogden was doing research on assisted suicide in the HIV community, interviewing people about their wishes to make decisions about ending their lives if they became unbearable- too sick, too demented to go on.
Dying isn’t something people generally want to ponder, but at some point we all have to, no matter what. A 2001 study of over 2700 people with HIV in Europe found that the majority wanted the option of legalized euthanasia While that urgency may have shifted from the HIV community with the success of treatment; there has been ongoing demand from many Canadians who face inevitably difficult deaths. They want the option to make choices about their deaths. Sue Rodriguez, Gloria Taylor and Gillian Bennett are just three of those whose diagnoses urged them to fight for the right to choose their own deaths- they were going to die anyway and wanted to do so with as much dignity as possible.
Quebec led the way on dying with dignity legislation last year with Bill 52 that “outlines the conditions in which a terminally ill adult patient who is of sound mind may request continuous palliative sedation that would lead to death.” The Supreme Court of Canada decided for the rest of the country on February 6, ruling that those with “grievous and irremediable medical conditions should have the right to ask a doctor to help them die.” Parliament has a year to sort out how, and when this will work, and Justin Trudeau is bidding the work should start now.
The BC Civil Liberties Association called the decision “a tremendous victory for the protection of human rights and compassion at the end of life.” Dying With Dignity Canada welcomed the decision while recognizing it as bittersweet as well. The Canadian Medical Association notes that doctors have mixed reactions and should not be compelled to assist in a death if it’s against their conscience. This is new ground that needs to be moved through carefully, honourably.
Thank science and good supportive care that an HIV diagnosis doesn’t mean the quick death it once did. Thank advocates that should anyone get to a point where assisted dying is an informed and desirable choice, the option will be available.