VANCOUVER – Months before B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith struck down Canada’s law on doctor-assisted suicide, Russel Ogden and a colleague attended the suicide of a 90-year-old woman in the province’s West Kootenays.
As Margaret Joan Lunam — a mother, veteran of the Second World War and aspiring Buddhist — ended her life, the fragrance of gilead and balm filled the crisp afternoon air of her home in Kaslo, B.C., and yellow daffodils lay nearby.
The visit wasn’t a first for Ogden, a criminologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, who said he has attended what he calls “self-chosen deaths” for research before and has even been arrested by police. But it was a first for him as director of the Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die, a group that will be in court Monday when the federal government appeal’s Smith’s ruling.
The foundation — which believes its members should be able to receive assistance to end their lives and provide assistance to other members who want to do the same, even for non-medical reasons — has published a five-page protocol for attending self-chosen deaths.
“The principal reason for attending is because members do not wish to die alone and they also wish to ensure that their death is reported appropriately to the coroner and the police,” said Ogden.
“This ensures that there is no traumatic discovery by somebody who is not expecting to walk into a room and find somebody who is deceased.”
The federal government appears in the B.C. Court of Appeal this week to challenge the June 15, 2012 ruling by Smith, who found the Criminal Code’s provisions on doctor-assisted suicide were unconstitutional.
Specifically, Smith ruled the Criminal Code infringed on a plaintiffs’ charter rights to life, liberty and security of person, but gave Parliament one year to draft new legislation.
Smith’s ruling also gave Gloria Taylor, who brought the case, an exemption to the law, allowing her to seek the help of a physician to die if she so chose.
Taylor died last year of an infection without that help, but her mother told a news conference Sunday the ruling allowed her daughter to face her illness “with dignity and grace.”
“Gloria struggled at the end of her life to make the world a better place,” said Anne Fomenoff.
“She was a voice of compassion. I speak on behalf of my entire family when I say we are so, so proud of her and we are continuing to struggle for compassion and choice in Gloria’s name.”
Grace Pastine, a lawyer for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association which is arguing against the appeal, said it’s a shame the federal government is spending its limited resources appealing the lower court ruling.
“This is an issue about real people, people like Gloria Taylor, who are trapped in an unbearable dying process. It is about family members who must helplessly stand by while their loved ones suffer,” Pastine said.
Eight groups have been granted intervenor status in the appeal, which will be webcast between Monday and Friday.
Included among them is the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, which argues the Court of Appeal must reverse the right-to-die decision on the grounds that in jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal, people who are not terminally ill are being urged toward it.
“Elder abuse, is already difficult to detect, would be no easier to combat when a suicide offer is always dangling before a vulnerable older person,” said Dr. Will Johnston, chairman of the group.
“Giving legal immunity to those who would provide suicide does not make our loved ones safer.”
The group will argue the judge in the case erred because she assumed there is a “right-to-suicide” in Canada, which the group says is not the case.
Still, the careful protocol developed by Ogden’s group, which now represents about 280 members, is based on the fact that there is no law against suicide, only in helping someone do it or counselling them to.
Under the protocol, members choosing their own deaths who want a support team present must make the request in writing.
A member may choose death because of serious illness with intolerable suffering or because the person has lived a “completed life” and its value and meaning has diminished to the point where death is preferable, states the protocol.
Once a request is made, Ogden added, a support team of at least two people encourages the member to discuss the issue with the family. The protocol requires the support team to meet with the member who may decide to include family or friends in the discussions.
At least two meetings, however, must take place without the presence of friends, family or others who could exert “undue influence,” states the protocol.
Members should also consider alternatives to death, states the protocol, including medical treatment, palliative care and social support, and the support team will document those discussions and help the member explore the options.
Ogden declined to discuss the details of Lunam’s death because of an investigation by the RCMP and the B.C. Coroners Service.
But according to a newsletter on the foundation’s website, Lunam had a “sense of completion in her life,” and only five years earlier had stopped teaching yoga.
“I did not want to lose my sense of independence and the ability to choose the time and means for my death,” she was quoted as saying.
Ogden said the support team who attends such events doesn’t do anything to counsel, assist or encourage the suicide.
Following the death, he said the support team notified the coroner and the RCMP and provided them with a case file.
RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said Mounties are assisting the BC Coroners Service in the investigation of Lunam’s death.
Coroner Barb McLintock said her agency has concluded its investigation and is writing a report, which will be made public.