Dying Doctor's Video Reopens Assisted Suicide Debate

"Why make people suffer for no reason when there is an alternative?” 

That poignant question asked by Dr. Donald Low in a video filmed just days before his death highlights his plea to have the Ontario government allow assisted suicide.   The 68-year old infectious disease expert died on September 18 after a seven-month battle with a malignant brain tumour.   Dr. Low, who rose to prominence over his role in battling Toronto's SARS epidemic ten years ago, was left paralyzed by the tumour and unable to hear or see. 

In the video, Dr. Low described how his condition had robbed him of his essential dignity despite receiving the best palliative care available.    In responding to doctors who oppose assisted suicide, he commented that, "I wish they could live in my body for 24 hours."   While he said that he had no fear of death,  he feared that his death would be protracted and painful.  In the end, he was spared a painful death as he died in the arms of his wife, journalist Maureen Taylor, who has since told reporters that he failed to get the death he wanted. 

Dr. Low's messae has had a powerful influence on politicians and voters alike.   Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews told reporters about the impact that the video had on her.  "“People deserve the best possible death we can provide.  I watched the video. It is an extremely powerful video and it puts a human face on the issue.”    Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has also publicly called for a "national conversation" about the contentious issue of physician assisted suicide.  "This is on the minds of many people across the country,” she said at a recent press conference. “It’s about human beings deciding what kinds of choices they believe they should have.”

Despite pressure from patient rights groups across the country, the federal governent has refused to reopen debate on assisted suicide.  According to Paloma Aguilar, press secretary to federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay,  the Parliamentary vote in 2010 showed that a large majority of parliamentarians opposed changing existing laws.   "Our government recognizes this is an emotional and divisive issue for many Canadians. The laws surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are most vulnerable, such as people who are sick or elderly or people with disabilities,” she said.

The issue of doctor-assisted suicide has polarized Canadian society since Sue Rodriguez unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government to allow her death in 1994.   Rodriguez later took her own life with the assistance of then-MPP Svend Robinson who served a brief prison sentence as a result of his involvement in the assisted suicide.   Since that time, later cases have also unsuccessfully challenged federal legislation including the recent Gloria Taylor case in British Columbia.  

While revising legislation on assisted suicide remains a federal matter, court challenges in British Columbia and Quebec continue to be heard.   Donald Low's video demonstrates that Ontario may well form a new front in that fight and the federal government may find themselves more embattled than ever.

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