The issue end-of-life-rights generally and specifically of assisted suicide—also commonly called physician-assisted death—has long been highly controversial in Western medicine and around the world. There are, unfortunately, many diseases and conditions for which we have found no cures, and those afflicted by these conditions can experience large amounts of pain, incapacitation, and loss of dignity in their final weeks and months of life. When death is an imminent certainty, it is often considered more compassionate to both the person suffering and to their family to bring things to an end sooner and in a more controlled, less painful manner.
Assisted suicide is also seen as more reflective of the principle of liberty upon which the Canadian government and Canadian society are founded. Letting people choose when and how they would like to depart from this world is increasingly seen as a fundamental human right, and has now been recognized as such by the Supreme Court of Canada.
As long as someone is making the decision for medically verifiable reasons; is not being influenced by family members, physicians, or others; and has the mental capacity to make the decision with clarity and certainty, it has been determined that they should be legally allowed to end their own lives. The Court’s decision also determined that physicians should be allowed to help their patients achieve this goal in as compassionate and pain-free manner as possible, and though Alberta has been slow to implement a specific law in this regard there is now some official guidance on how this will affect medical practice and individual rights.
Less certain is how this might affect medical malpractice claims here in Calgary, throughout Alberta, and indeed throughout Canada.
Medical mistakes leading to death are unfortunately nothing new. While medical deaths due to physician negligence and other egregious errors by medical staff are relatively rare, there are hundreds if not thousands of instances of such deaths in Canada every year. In these instances, however, an error led to the death of a patient who was trying to heal and definitely wanted to live. With physician-assisted suicides, the question of whether or not a patient wanted to live isn’t as simple, and may be the source of a new type of claim.
If a medical practitioner purposefully contributes to a death through assisted suicide and the patent was not in a proper mental state or was incorrectly diagnosed with a terminal illness, the families of that patient could have a medical malpractice and wrongful death claim against the medical practitioner(s) involved. We strongly support everyone’s right to make an individual choice in this matter, and we stand by Calgary physicians who assist the patients and families confronted with this difficult choice. We also urge everyone involved to discuss and consider this option very carefully, because there truly is no reversing the decision once it’s been carried out.
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