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Rallying for the right to die

Dying with Dignity Canada pushes for medically assisted death at a rally outside the NS Legislature

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Sheila Sperry of Dying with Dignity Canada (DWDC) was part of the crowd rallying outside the Nova Scotia Legislature this past Wednesday.

Their cause: the decriminalization of medically assisted death (MAD).

This is a topical subject, as the Canadian Supreme Court recently heard the appeal in the Kay Carter case – the motivation behind DWDC’s National Day of Action and Solidarity.

Carter was a B.C. woman who suffered from a degenerative spinal condition, and went to Switzerland to seek assisted suicide.

“There are two things in this world that are common to all of us birth and death,” says Sperry.

Sperry, the founder of DWDC’s Nova Scotia chapter, says the organization’s goal is not only advocating for MAD but also for education on patient rights.

“Dying with Dignity isn’t talking about dying, they’re talking about choice,” she says.

DWDC’s rally was held at noon, with poster distribution and social media promotion culminating in four speakers who addressed the public about various aspects of MAD.

Last week, DWDC released results of a cross-Canada survey asking the public if they supported medically-assisted death. Nova Scotia had the highest rate of support at 89 per cent, while 84 per cent of Canadians overall support the practice.

According to Jocelyn Downie, a Dalhousie professor who teaches health care ethics and law, these numbers should not be a surprise.

“For decades, (support) has been over 70 per cent,” says Downie.

Last year, Canadian physician Donald Low requested the decriminalization of MAD before he died in September from a brain tumour. It was the most high-profile case involving MAD in recent memory and brought focus to the topic among the medical community.

In a video released posthumously, Low pled, “Why make people suffer for no reason when there’s an alternative?”

Sperry adds, “People die before they have to, because they know they can’t implicate their loved one. That’s the other tragedy of the whole thing.”

“Fundamentally, (medically-assisted dying) is about autonomy, but it’s also about alleviating suffering,” says Downie.

While Downie supports the decriminalization of MAD, some do not.

The Canadian Medical Association’s main argument against MAD is the “slippery slope effect.” If decriminalized, the practice could be difficult to monitor and could put vulnerable populations at risk, such as seniors with dementia.

Downie disagrees. “Evidence does not support that argument and the group of people that rely on it has shrunk considerably,” she says.

Several cases have brought the debate of MAD’s decriminalization to the forefront of Canadian legislation, the most recent being the Carter case.

In reference to the Supreme Court, Downie says, “They could strike down the criminal code and we would be a country that would have assisted dying. A lot is riding on this case. We’ve been waiting a long time.”

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