The members in attendance at the AGM for REAL Women of Canada held on October 31, 2020, were presented with an interesting perspective on assisted suicide. The keynote speaker was Blaise Alleyne, who is the Eastern Outreach Director for the Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) and is coauthor of the book, A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide. Mr. Alleyne presented compassionate and researched information on assisted suicide, as well as how to effectively engage in dialogue with those unopposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia.
He opened his talk by discussing Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, as well as a Holocaust survivor. In the 1920s and 1930s, he studied depression and suicide to develop effective suicide prevention strategies.
Frankl wanted to know why some in the Nazi concentration camps gave up and others continued to fight for life. He found that the survivors had some meaning, purpose or hope to propel them forward. Despair, he found, was suffering without meaning. This is opposed to our current culture and the media, who would have us believe that all suffering is bad and has no purpose.
The pro-euthanasia organization Dying with Dignity presents euthanasia and assisted suicide as a way to relieve suffering, especially physical pain. However, data collected from the Oregon euthanasia program indicates that most people contemplating assisted suicide are concerned about losing autonomy, loss of dignity, being a burden on one’s family and losing control of bodily functions, with only one quarter of people citing pain as a concern. That is, these concerns are chiefly about disability, rather than pain management.
Society’s acceptance of assisted suicide stems from an ableism and ageism that exists in disharmony with the push for more mental health awareness and resources. Mr. Alleyne illuminated this discordant society with a conversation he had with an individual while doing street activism. The individual said that he would not want to force an 80-year-old quadriplegic person with Alzheimer’s to stay alive. However, when asked if he felt the same about an 80-year-old Alzheimer’s patient not in a wheelchair, the individual said no because there were some forms of treatment for Alzheimer’s. In a different conversation, a woman stated that she would not want to force an elderly person to stay alive if they felt they were done living. When asked if she would say the same about a 19-year-old, she said no because the teenage years were a turbulent time.
Both of these conversations demonstrate that discussion of the matter of assisted suicide must answer two questions regarding human rights:
- Who gets to decide whose life is important?
- Who should be given assisted suicide and who should be prevented from committing suicide?
Dr. Harvey Chochinov, a Canadian palliative care researcher, studied why society allows some people to end their lives. He found that people saw reduced/poor quality of life, unbearable suffering, incurable condition and terminal prognosis as compassionate reasons for allowing assisted suicide. However, in the course of his research he found that a process called dignity therapy helped patients to improve their quality of life, spiritual well-being and sense of worth. Dignity therapy is a perfect example of a truly compassionate and ethical response to suffering at the end of life.
Receiving treatment such as dignity therapy relies on access to support measures and palliative care at the end of life. It is said that 56% of Canadians have no access to palliative care. However, greater mental health resources and disability support prior to the need for palliative care are also necessary to ensure that people maintain their sense of worth. Many people accept assisted suicide because they fail to see the value in their own lives.
In regard to having conversations with others about assisted suicide, Mr. Alleyne addressed three responses to the question: who deserves assisted suicide and who deserves suicide prevention?
There are three possible responses. The first is the discordant response that assisted suicide is okay for some, but not for others. Few people realize that they have this confusion. Talking with them about suicide prevention for all from the perspective of human rights helps people to see the inconsistency of their own views.
The second possible response is that everyone, regardless of circumstance, should have a right to assisted suicide. Few people hold this view. In conversation, dialoguers should ask the people who do have this view to find a time when they would step in to discourage someone from ending his/her life, for example, by asking them, “Would you not step in if your best friend said that he/she wanted to end his/her life?” If the person acknowledges a time when he/she would try to discourage a person from ending his/her life, the dialoguer should then move the conversation toward establishing suicide prevention access for all.
Mr. Alleyne noted that it is important to establish common ground through conversations with people who have the first and second response. For example, if a person says, “It would be terrible to suffer alone,” dialoguers should affirm that statement. He also noted in the question period that it is important to focus on one topic per conversation to prevent an opposed individual from discounting everything said based on one’s stance on a separate issue.
The third response is the pro-life response that all deserve suicide prevention. To further explore the pro-life position, Mr. Alleyne showed a TED Talk from Dr. B.J. Miller, a palliative care physician at the Zen Hospice Project. Dr. Miller summed up his argument:
We must work to relieve unbearable suffering and apply our creativity and imagination to improve quality of life, even when it is in short supply, even in a person’s darkest moments or final days. Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination.
We encourage you to read Mr. Alleyne’s book and share the information with your loved ones. You can also check out the following websites for more information: carenotkill.ca; thebridgehead.ca (blog of Jonathon Van Maren, Mr. Alleyne’s coauthor) and endthekilling.ca (CCBR’s website regarding abortion). You can reach Blaise Alleyne at email@example.com.