Bradley Peter: Dying With Dignity

(This is the first in a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)

Bradley Peter is a tall, slender man with a soft voice and a gentle, methodical manner. He is just the sort of person you can imagine being a therapist or a funeral director.

Actually, he’s a biologist.

But after witnessing his grandmother’s final weeks – where her options were to keep suffering, be drugged and “live” as a vegetable until her body expired, or to voluntarily starve to death – he found a passion for reforming our laws around death to enable people more dignity when the choice is no longer one between life and death, but between an excruciating, humiliating death and a dignified, comfortable death.

This February, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on physician-assisted death is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, denying people important rights. (It’s more involved than you might think. Apparently suicide itself isn’t a criminal act in Canada, but someone – including a doctor – can be jailed for up to 14 years for counselling or aiding in a suicide.) The ruling itself is here (somewhat hard to read, but it’s there), and there are many news reports and commentaries – here are some: 1, 2, 3. Their ruling, which strikes down the portion of the Criminal Code that pertains to physician-assisted death, comes into effect in 2016, on February 6. If nothing else happens, we will be left in something of a vacuum, with no prohibition and no clear guidelines on how to deal with patient requests for assistance in dying.

Our new Alberta provincial government, our new Canadian federal government, and various medical bodies all bear responsibility to prepare for this deadline by consulting with public and medical professionals and drafting legislation. Dying With Dignity, an organization which Brad is part of, is campaigning on various fronts to ensure that the rules we end up with respect patient rights, physicians’ conscience, and court rulings. We need to ensure that people are not abused – either by greedy relatives pressuring aging invalids into suicide, or by moralizing naysayers who would see suffering as some sort of heavenly gift, or anyone else.

A couple of things you can do right now from the comfort of your own browser are to complete online surveys for the External Panel on Options for a Legislative Response to Carter v. Canada (which will advise the federal ministers of justice and health – survey here) and the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (which will determine best practice in Alberta for physicians around this part of end-of-life care – survey here). I am sure the colleges of physicians and surgeons of other provinces are also working on this – if you know of them and any surveys they have going, leave a comment with links and I’ll add them to the post.

It is important to be aware that these surveys are not necessarily unbiased. Whether intentionally or not, some of the questions may be leading. Read carefully, and respond honestly and thoughtfully. At least the first one has space throughout and at the end for you to note things you think are important but were not covered in the wording or choices on the survey.

Brad’s presentation came at a perfect time to motivate many of us in the audience to take an active role in shaping the attitudes of legislators and informing our fellow citizens about the issue at stake.

There is also an upcoming National Day of Action on November 4th (Wednesday next week – there are events in cities across Canada). Will you join us, and Brad, and others who feel that the time has come for a careful, compassionate look at how we treat death and dying people in our country?

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