There is nothing more precious than human life, and one of the most important tasks of our justice system is to preserve the sanctity of it. However, when one asks a person to “go live your life” or “live life to its fullest” what is implied? We are expected to inference that we should be more adventurous, try new things, and include enjoyable experiences. Yet, what if we were prevented from doing these things because of a crippling disability, or excruciating, chronic pain? This raises the issue that when there is no quality of life, there is little sanctity in it. Therefore, to preserve quality of life, and security of person, choosing to end a life for merciful reasons, or euthanasia, should be considered a viable option.
In R v. Latimer, Robert Latimer’s daughter Tracy was in excruciating pain, underwent several serious operations, had the mental capacity of a four month old infant, and suffered a variety of other ailments. He believed that he was justified in killing his daughter, because in death she would experience no pain, and therefore it was a more positive alternative to her life. In the case of Sue Rodriguez, her life was in a state of slow deterioration, and by the time she deemed there was no more quality in it, she would be unable to commit suicide. Consequently, she pursued the legalization of Assisted Suicide. In her eyes, not to do so violated her Right to Security of Person under s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Examining these cases and the public reactions to them helps to shed light on the controversial topic of Euthanasia.
R V. LATIMER
Robert Latimer was a Saskatchewan farmer. His daughter Tracy was born with extremely severe cerebral palsy, causing her to be a quadriplegic, have the intelligence of a four month old infant, and necessitate the use of spoon feeding to provide nourishment. Tracy “suffered five to six seizures daily, and it was thought she suffered great pain” (Dimensions of Law: p. 325). After another surgery was required to insert a feeding tube into Tracy’s stomach to prevent malnutrition, Latimer decided that the quality of Tracy’s life was so low, it would be a better alternative to euthanize her by putting her in his truck and filling it with carbon monoxide.
Robert Latimer was charged with first degree murder for this killing, and was later convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to the minimum ten years in prison. Latimer believed that because of the extenuating circumstances, that ten years was cruel and unusual punishment. He appealed to the Supreme Court, but his conviction was upheld unanimously.
This case provides great interest for a number of reasons. According to Canadian law, what Robert Latimer did was undoubtedly murder. He took his daughter’s life intentionally and with careful consideration. However, under certain circumstances, taking life cannot be considered murder. It is thought very humane to euthanize or “put-down” a pet that is suffering. Yet, to do so to a human is considered murder. Of course, there is typically a distinction between human and animal intelligence, but in the case of R v. Latimer, Tracy Latimer only possessed the mental capacity of a four month old infant. This means she could not formulate the abstract thoughts that distinguish humanity from animals. All Tracy knew was discomfort, suffering, and slowly degrading health. If she was Robert Latimer’s pet, the majority of society would _look down on him_ for not taking the humane steps and ending this life, and thus her suffering.
However, the nature of our legal system means that ending any human’s life, no matter what physical state they are in, is a criminal offence. This should not be, as it violates their right to security of person, which is further outlined in the case of Sue Rodriguez.
SUE RODRIGUEZ AND ASSISTED SUICIDE
In 1992, a British Columbian woman named Sue Rodriguez started a court case with the intention of altering s. 241 of the Canadian Criminal code. This section states: _”Every one who (a) counsels a person to commit suicide, or (b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years”_ (Canadian Criminal Code). Sue Rodriguez had ALS, (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), commonly referred to as Lou Gherig’s disease. This is a degenerative nerve disease that renders an individual to become gradually weakened until she is unable to eat, or even breathe without the help of machines. Ms. Rodriquez wished to enjoy life while she still could.
When the quality of her life reached a point that life was no longer worth living, she would be unable to end it by her own hand. She felt that s. 241 of the criminal code violated s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which states: “_Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person and the right not to be deprived thereof…”_ (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Rodriguez thought that because the Criminal Code prevented someone from assisting her in suicide, it was violating her right to security of person. She brought this case all the way to the Supreme Court, where in a 5 – 4 decision, they ruled against altering s. 241 of the Criminal Code. About four months after the ruling, Sue committed assisted suicide with the aid of a physician whose identity is still unknown.
Sue Rodriguez was facing an impossible situation; she wished to enjoy life as long as she could, but the minute she could no longer enjoy it, she would be too weak to carry out suicide, what she believed was the most dignified way to die. Section 241 of the Criminal Code made it illegal for a doctor or other person to assist her, and she saw this as a clear violation of her right to security of person. Rodriquez felt she was becoming “a prisoner in [her] on body…” and the current laws were enforcing this. If a person wishes to die, it is their right to do so. In Canada, there is no law against attempted suicide, and therefore there should be no law against those who need assistance to end their lives. Like Euthanasia, it is the humane thing to do to assist someone in their decision to end their lives, and s. 241 of the Criminal Code should be altered to accommodate this.
In both the aforementioned cases, the goals of these two participants in euthanasia were not to diminish the rights and freedom of the suffering individuals, but rather to uphold them. In the case of R v. Latimer, his daughter suffered in chronic agony, and was unable to even formulate conscious thought. To continue existing in such a declining state of health was merely torture.
As for Sue Rodriguez, she was fully able to make the decision that she wished to end her life, but lacked the faculties to do so without assistance. It was a clear violation of her right to security of person to force her to live in a degrading body, and experience the pain that went with the disease. It is only reasonable that alterations be made to Canada’s justice system, particularly s. 241 of the criminal code. Although the sanctity of life is paramount in importance, when that life is no longer worth living, it should be up to that person, and/or the duty of that person’s closest relations to help them end their suffering, by engaging in euthanasia.