Last month, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada, chaired by Udo Schuklenk, a professor of bioethics at Queens University, released a report on decision-making at the end of life. The report provides a strong argument for allowing doctors to help their patients to die, provided that the patients are competent and freely request such assistance.
The ethical basis of the panel’s argument is not so much the avoidance of unnecessary suffering in terminally ill patients, but rather the core value of individual autonomy or self-determination. “The manner of our dying,” the panel concludes, “reflects our sense of what is important just as much as do the other central decisions in our lives.” In a state that protects individual rights, therefore, deciding how to die ought to be recognized as such a right.
The report also offers an up-to-date review of how assistance by physicians in ending life is working in the “living laboratories” – the jurisdictions where it is legal. In Switzerland, as well as in the American states of Oregon, Washington and Montana, the law now permits physicians, on request, to supply a terminally ill patient with a prescription for a drug that will bring about a peaceful death. In The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, doctors have the additional option of responding to the patient’s request by giving the patient a lethal injection.