As an Anglican cleric I’ve seen numerous people at the end of their lives. Frankly, it’s not like in the movies. Films only seem comfortable when depicting violent and sudden demise; the long, drawn-out, agonising banality of hospital death seems too frightening, perhaps too real and inevitable, for them to handle.
It’s seldom easy. The idea of the “good death” is often a misnomer, even an oxymoron. There can be the relatively painless slide, surrounded by loved ones, but I wish I could say that was common. Nor should we be terrified by what is usually eased by medication and care. Medical staff who work with the dying never cease to amaze me.
Then there are the other cases. Those who wake each morning uncertain whether they will drown in their own bodily fluid, scared that the pain will begin again (it will, because drugs are not panaceas and some pain is simply too profound and systemic to be dealt with). Or those whose “quality” of life is so diminished and their dignity so smashed that they want to go on their own terms and time.
All reasons why Canada, where I live and work, expanded Maid – Medical Assistance in Dying – almost a year ago. Introduced in 2016, it’s now effectively the most permissive programme of its kind in the world. In 2021 there were more than 10,000 Maid deaths, and there have been almost 32,000 since 2016. The annual increase is substantial and, in all honesty, deeply worrying.
This is why the government has delayed by a year the extension of Maid for those suffering from mental illness. But this came about only after streams of columns and reports outlining what seemed to be clear abuses of the ethos and purpose of assisted dying. Even to me, an advocate, some of the documented stories appear grotesque: Maid granted due to physical suffering and depression during Covid isolation, or in a context of inadequate levels of staff and care, and decisions seemingly rushed and not properly considered.
Political and religious opponents of assisted dying have, of course, rushed on this with unseemly alacrity. Their long-predicted “culture of death” seems to be coming true, and right-wing media platforms the world over point to Canada as an example of how bad it can be.
That’s untrue, and a major aspect of the problem is the under-funding of socialised medicine, with echoes of the NHS. It’s often those most opposed to the public healthcare system that shout the loudest about Maid, perhaps unaware – perhaps not – that lack of financing for end-of-life and long-term care, mental health and support for the disabled is a driving factor.
We once revered the elderly as mansions of wisdom and grace; now we see them as slums to be cleared. We boast new enlightenment regarding the disabled and mentally challenged but seldom do very much about it. So, Canada needs to rethink but not remove. No amount of political exploitation should be allowed to change that.
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