Care for our dying

  • September 21, 2009
{mosimage}It is a sad reflection on society when Parliament is ready to consider euthanizing the terminally ill or chronically suffering rather than working to find ways to care for them.

But that’s exactly what is happening in Ottawa as Bill C-384, a private-member’s bill that would legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, makes its way on to the Parliamentary docket. This is the third time Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde has introduced legislation that would amend the Canadian Criminal Code on this subject and, even if a fall election thwarts this attempt, there will almost certainly be a fourth try when Parliament eventually reconvenes.

Instead of debating amendments that would let doctors kill society’s most vulnerable members and make it easier for them to kill themselves, Parliament’s time would be better spent crafting policies to improve the level of palliative care for those enduring the pain and trauma of imminent death. The first step towards that goal might be to dust off a nine-year-old report from a Senate sub-committee chaired by Sharon Carstairs.

Her group concluded that in 2000 quality end-of-life care is the right of every Canadian and that it “must become an entrenched core value of our heath-care system.”

“Each person is entitled to die in relative comfort, as free as possible from physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual distress,” said the report. “Each Canadian is entitled to access skilled, compassionate and respectful care at end of life.”

Yet despite those unequivocal findings and a long-list of progressive proposals, progress has been glacial. The vast majority of Canadians, particularly those outside large cities, have little access to professional palliative or hospice care and those that do often enter a system that is under-staffed and under-funded.

Statistics Canada reports that 260,000 people die each year in Canada and that the annual death total will grow to 330,000 by 2020. Almost two-thirds of dying people require palliative care services, yet services are available to just 15 per cent of those who need them. At a time when more people are seeking the option to die at home comforted by family and palliative care support, 75 per cent of deaths still occur in institutions.

The average life-span for Canadians is among the longest in the world. We spend billions of tax dollars on health care, research and drugs, and we reap the benefit of longer, healthier lives, only to be largely abandoned on our death beds. Too many people face their final days in needless physical, psychological and spiritual pain. The way to fix that moral indignity is not with an even greater immorality — euthanasia — but by making compassionate end-of-life services a fundamental tenet of universal health care.

The Canadian Catholic community is rightly indignant about Bill C-384. But the message to Ottawa should be more than just to defeat this odious bill. It’s time Parliament got on with the job of developing a comprehensive end-of-life strategy that has quality palliative care as a cornerstone.

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