A Personal Reflection on the Passing of Bill C-14

Debbie Rolfe

Contributed by: Debbie Rolfe


My friend calls me a worry specialist, and while initially I took some offense, I realize that a lifetime of worry does entitle me to the rank of specialist. Most recently I have been worried about my relationship with and responsibilities to my mother. She lives in a long term care facility in a different province and so connecting by telephone on a regular basis is how we keep in touch. Mother is in her mid 80’s, and has a quick and sharp mind, which are both a blessing and a burden. She has several chronic health conditions which limit her mobility, and cause her considerable daily pain. I think it is being blind that has caused her the most suffering however, as with it she lost her sense of usefulness, independence, and her hobbies that brought her joy.


During our most recent call when Mother was complaining about her various ailments I said, “I wish I could help Mom” and she said “Just get me a gun.” This is not the first time Mom has made this kind of comment; she is tough, resilient and pragmatic. I have always assumed that while she suffers, she ultimately prefers drawing breath to the alternative. However, since Bill C-14 received Royal Assent on June 17/16, thus allowing for medical assistance in dying, I find myself troubled. Normally with other types of breaking news I would ask Mom what she thinks of the decision. But up until now I have deliberately censored myself, and held back because I was afraid she might say that physician-assisted suicide is something she wants. After Mom’s gun comment, I had a more pressing dilemma. What does my responsibility as a dutiful daughter entail? Should I now make a point of telling Mom about the new developments? Am I causing her greater suffering by withholding this information? What is the right thing to do here?


As a health care professional I know at least this one thing about myself; I cannot stand the thought of people suffering. I support any measures to relieve a person’s suffering short of actively taking their life. I worry now that by not being an advocate for the new choices available for people through medical assistance in dying, I will be considered uncaring. It seems to me that our culture today valorizes choice, individual preference, and yet as I so recently experienced with my Mom, we are relational beings...what we choose affects others. And I wonder what I will do in the future if my loved one is suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”. At some point might I not be driven to say, “Dear have you had enough? There are other options.” And whose suffering is it I would be trying to alleviate – his, mine, both of ours? And what about me, if my death is “reasonably foreseeable” – might I not gaze at the pain on my family members’ face, and decide my illness is too big a burden for them? Maybe I should take the shorter more direct route to my demise and spare my loved ones any more misery.


And so I worry about the original nine members of the Supreme Court; privileged and aging members of our society, who took it upon themselves to change our social norms and mores and affect the everyday relationships and responsibilities all people share with those they care about. Choice implies freedom, and with it attendant responsibilities, but is it possible that the burden of choosing itself outweighs the possible benefits for many of us?


Death and change are both inevitable in life. My final worry has to do with what happens as change in societal values becomes routine, everyday, ordinary. People then start to make judgements about other people based on these societal norms. “What would/should a reasonable person do in this situation?” What started out as a choice, overtime, becomes an expectation. A woman, for example, who has a positive prenatal test result, and chooses not to terminate her pregnancy, may be judged for deliberately bringing a disabled child into the world. Likewise, if I am suffering, and I choose not to avail myself of the option to alleviate that suffering by getting help to end my life, might I be judged for continuing to use ever diminishing health care resources?


I guess one of the anticipated or unanticipated consequences of both our provincial prenatal screening programs and Parliament’s passing of Bill C-14, is that in making these choices available to us, there may be fewer disabled, sick and infirm people alive to care for. Is this the kind of society we envision for ourselves? That is enough worry for today. It is time to give my Mom a call.


The JCB Voice features occasional personal reflections by JCB faculty, students, and graduates to illuminate a diversity of perspectives on topical ethical issues of the day. In this issue, Debbie Rolfe (JCB Member; MHSc ‘07) reflects on the questions Bill C-14 is raising for her as a health professional, a daughter of aging parents, and as an individual.