Three who died with assistance

Final farewell

In this way may we learn of individual suffering and the reasoning for each assisted death: The current process permitted until June 6 by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) for a person to request a “constitutional exemption” for assisted death makes medical information public that would normally be solely between a doctor and patient. Names are withheld, with the Courts using only initials.

Regarding the first two of these people, the Attorney General for Canada argued against assisted death, once because the condition was psychiatric, and not physical; and twice because it was not imminent. The third person whom I introduce to you is Kay Carter from the original decision of 2012, long before the SCC became involved in the Carter decision. Canada (AG) has lost all three of these court cases. Some background on Canadian courts and cases is provided in my previous post.

The purpose here is to let these people’s conditions, described in the rulings of the lower courts, speak for the deceased.

I.J. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 ONSC 3380

May 24, 2016

[5] I.J. has: spinal stenosis; discogenic disease; neurogenic claudication; lumbosacral facet osetoarthropathy; spondylolisthesis; rotoscoliosis; major kyphosis; and sacroiliac joint complex pain disorder. He is deformed to the point where he cannot stand erect or sit comfortably. His chin rests on his chest, and he feels like he is being strangled. He has difficulty breathing, swallowing, and speaking. He has pain in all his limbs, his buttocks, his back, his hip, his neck. His skin itches. The condition of his bone and joint pain are worsening, and he is beginning to lose the ability to hold a pen and eating utensils. He can walk with a walker albeit just barely and painfully. His digestive, bowel, and urinary systems are dysfunctional.

He is in constant excruciating pain, and the pain is increasing. He has no energy because it is taken up fighting the pain. He has sleep apnea from the pain and the itchiness. Pain medications aggravate his severe constipation and digestive issues. He is exhausted and stressed but he does not want for mental acuity and capacity. He describes the mental anguish that comes from being trapped in a pain- wracked, constipated, effectively immobile body as an intolerable state of being. He says his life is unbearable. He says that he will starve himself to death if the assisted death application is refused. He says he cannot take this suffering or existence anymore.

 

Canada (Attorney General) v E.F., 2016 ABCA 155

May 17, 2016

[7] … [EF, a woman] suffers from involuntary muscle spasms that radiate from her face through the sides and top of her head and into her shoulders, causing her severe and constant pain and migraines. Her eyelid muscles have spasmed shut, rendering her effectively blind. Her digestive system is ineffective and she goes without eating for up to two days. She has significant trouble sleeping and, because of her digestive problems, she has lost significant weight and muscle mass.

She is non-ambulatory and needs to be carried or use a wheelchair. Her quality of life is non-existent. While her condition is diagnosed as a psychiatric one, her capacity and her cognitive ability to make informed decisions, including providing consent to terminating her life, are unimpaired. She deposes that she is not depressed or suicidal, but “simply exhausted after years of suffering indescribable pain”.

 

Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2012 BCSC 886

June 16, 2012

It bears to point out a few things here. First, this is the original case argued in a lower BC Court, before two appeals. Second, the “Carter” in the case names has never been Kay Carter, who was suffering, but rather Kay’s daughter, Lee, who had already assisted in her mother’s death in a Swiss hospice. This explains why the other original plaintiff gets mentioned more in the legal arguments, because Gloria Taylor was suffering from ALS and was asking for an assisted death; Lee Carter, along with her husband Hollis Johnson, on the other hand, were in essence asking whether they were guilty of Kay’s murder.

[57] In 2008, Lee Carter’s mother, Kathleen (“Kay”) was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a condition involving progressive compression of the spinal cord. Kay was advised that surgery could relieve some of the compression of her spine, but she declined due to the significant operative risks.

[58] Kay’s physical condition deteriorated steadily over the ensuing months, though her mental faculties remained intact. By August 2009, she required assistance for virtually all of her daily activities, including eating and toileting. She had extremely limited movement in her hands. She was confined to a wheelchair, and could not move it herself. If lying flat, she required assistance to sit up. Kay suffered chronic pain, and was prescribed medication at increasing levels as her condition deteriorated.

[60] Ms. Carter states that her mother, a strong-willed and independent person, repeatedly expressed how her condition made her feel trapped in her own body and stripped of her independence. On a number of occasions, Kay told her daughter that she did not wish to live her life in that condition, as an “ironing board” lying flat in a bed.

[68] At the [Swiss] clinic, a staff member gave Kay medication to settle her stomach. After about 30 minutes, she was moved from her wheelchair to a bed. The members of Kay’s family positioned themselves around her, entwining their arms around Kay and each other. The staff member brought the prescribed dose of sodium pentobarbital to Kay in a small glass, and assisted her to drink the medication with a straw. Kay became unconscious within minutes, and after about 20 minutes, she passed away. She was 89 years of age.

Rest in peace.

Cases cited

Links open in a new window or tab:

I.J. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 ONSC 3380

Canada (Attorney General) v E.F., 2016 ABCA 155

Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2012 BCSC 886

 

Photo copyright: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz. Used under licence from iStock.

 

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