The overturning of the ban on physician-assisted suicide by the B.C. Supreme Court last week will give a lot of people hope.
Gloria Taylor, the plaintiff at the centre of the lawsuit challenging the ban, hasn't decided whether she'll ask a doctor to help end her life, but there is comfort in knowing it's an option.
The court handed Parliament a year to rewrite the unconstitutional law but Taylor, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, was provided an immediate exemption.
ALS, as it is commonly known, is one of the most dreadful of terminal illnesses. Essentially, the brain no longer tells the person's muscles how to move, leading to weakness in the limbs, slurred speech, stumbling and the inability to manage motor skills like turning a key in a lock.
Eventually, there are problems swallowing and breathing, and the ability to move becomes a memory while the sufferer's intellect, smell, taste, sight and hearing remain intact.
Being trapped in a body that doesn't respond, compounded by an inability to communicate, is a living hell. Hearing family members describe the final years of watching their loved one waste away is heart-wrenching. (There is a local fundraising walk for ALS, by the way, on Saturday at McArthur Island's Xeriscape Gardens at 10 a.m.)
So no wonder — with no cure and 80 per cent of sufferers expected to die within two to five years of diagnosis — that someone like Taylor would seek to ease her final days.
"I can do dying," Taylor said, "but I can't do major suffering to get there."
There is a lot of groundwork ahead to hammer down terms that will guide eligibility for doctor-assisted suicide.
Judge Lynn Smith provided a loose framework: patients must be diagnosed with a serious illness or disability and experiencing "intolerable" physical or psychological distress with no hope of getting better.
There is also a range of templates in other countries that the Conservative government can turn to for ideas during the year it has to rewrite the law (if it opts not to challenge the decision).
Oregon's Death With Dignity Act has been in place since 1997. Doctors can prescribe lethal medications that a patient can end his life with. The act is specific that the person must be mentally alert but diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months.
It has been a decade since the Netherlands and Belgium legalized euthanasia, where a doctor administers medication that ends a person's life. Eligible patients must have their wits intact and be enduring "hopeless and unbearable" suffering due to health issues.
Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide since 1941 and voters there reaffirmed this option in May 2011, even for foreigners. A doctor is not required to prescribe drugs the person uses to take his life and there is no terminal illness condition, either. For this reason, the country is condemned by some for promoting "suicide tourism."
So while there is much work ahead in laying the framework to guide assisted suicide, it's not necessary to reinvent the wheel.
It's hard to fathom that doctor-assisted suicide should not be allowed when patients in Canadian hospitals can already refuse medication, artificial feeding or fluids — pulling the plug on themselves. Assisted-suicide doesn't seem all that different.