Support growing for physician-assisted death

Support for the right to choose how a person wants to die is gaining momentum in Victoria.

On the heels of one of Canada’s first physician-assisted deaths, support for the right to choose how a person wants to die is gaining momentum in Victoria.

Dying with Dignity Canada, a national organization committed to improving quality of dying and expanding end-of-life choices, recently launched its first Victoria chapter.

“I’m very interested in having choice at the end of life,” said Victoria resident and chapter co-chair Ellen Agger. “If I’m hit by a car, I don’t have a choice. But if I get some kind of illness that has an outcome of death, then I would like to be able to choose the manner and time that I die.”

Agger first started thinking about end-of-life options when she was in her 30s. She would have discussions with her mother about the types of treatment they would prefer.

But the discussion turned into reality when her mother was diagnosed with a fast-progressing dementia.

She lost the ability to feed, bathe, clean and care for herself. Whenever she spoke, Agger could not understand her. Her mother passed away a year and five months after diagnosis.

Seven years ago, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer and suffocated to death.

“I want to control how I die. I want to die peacefully. I want it to be a gentle death, I don’t want to suffer,” Agger said.

Support has been growing for physician-assisted dying in Victoria.

The group has more than 320 supporters in Greater Victoria and 850 on the Vancouver and Gulf islands.

According to Agger, there’s been a shift in how people think about death and more people are comfortable with talking about the idea of dying.

Under Canada’s current laws, it is a crime to assist another person in ending their life.

However, two recent Supreme Court decisions allow exemptions if certain criteria are met.

Last month, a special joint committee on physician-assisted dying released a 70-page report with 21 recommendations on new federal legislation to enable physician-assisted dying.

Recommendations include medical assistance in dying be made available to individuals with terminal and non-terminal medical conditions that cause intolerable suffering; that the federal government work with provinces and territories to ensure all publicly funded health care institutions provide medical assistance in dying; and medical-assisted dying can be carried out if two physicians are present.

Victoria MP Murray Rankin was the vice-chair of the committee which heard from 61 groups and more than 100 written submissions about physician-assisted deaths.

Rankin said he’s hopeful new federal legislation will be passed in June based on the recommendations put forward.

“I’m satisfied with our job of protecting the vulnerable. We took that very, very seriously,” Rankin said.

“I’m hopeful, having heard from witnesses and trying to make the judgements we were asked to make, that the government will see this as a positive report . . . and the bill will be drafted along similar lines.”

In an emailed statement a spokesperson with the Vancouver Island Health Authority said “The direction the federal government takes in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling will determine how we proceed in B.C. I expect there will be strong direction provided by the provincial government and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which Island Health would follow.”

The issue has sparked debate between people for and against physician-assisted dying, after a Calgary woman was granted the right to physician-assisted death last week.

She travelled to Vancouver to end her life with the help of two physicians last week.