A letter about the terminal-illness criterion
August 13, 1999
Hon. Vic Toews, Minister of Justice
Room 104, Legislative Building
RE: BERT AND SUSAN DOERKSEN
It is my understanding that when your department was consulted by the police,
about whether to charge Mr. Doerksen with assisting in his wife's suicide,
you deliberated for two months before making your recommendations. This
is to your credit. But I respectfully suggest that it is time for some
A while ago, someone whom I know sent you a letter about the case. From
the reply which he received, it appeared that the terminal-illness criterion
had played an important part in the department's reasoning. If it did,
you are to be commended for being in step with the current law in Oregon
and the earlier law in the Northern Territory of Australia.
However, I wish to offer you some of my thoughts on the terminal-illness
criterion and why it tends to figure prominently in jurisdictions' initial
approaches to assisted-death legislation.
The first point to be made is that there are two parties involved in a
dying. There are the watchers (doctors, relatives, bioethicists, politicians)
and there is the doer (the person doing the dying). Comparatively speaking,
the watchers are young, strong and numerous; the doer is old, weak, and
solitary. It is easy to see which party has the greater power.
What this means, for the legal system, is that the watchers rather than
the doers have created our present laws about dying. And in so doing they
have been guided -- understandably, if not laudably -- by the concerns
which are uppermost in their own minds.
Chief among their concerns has been this one: minimizing the extent to
which they have to acknowledge responsibility for ending a life. And when
aid in dying is provided to someone who is terminally ill, the watcher
can say "I didn't really do anything -- the person was dying anyway".
This is why the first-stage legislation, in any given place, usually confines
assistance to those who are clearly dying.
Yet as time goes by, we become able to acknowledge that even with terminally
ill people we have made death happen a little sooner. And we see that this
was the right thing to do, because the people wanted to avoid going through
the experiences that would have come to them during the weeks or months
that were skipped over. Eventually the focus shifts from our own comfort
("Can I bear this responsibility?") to the comfort of the other
person ("Can he or she bear these experiences?").
Then we graduate from the criterion of terminal illness to the criterion
of incurable and intolerable suffering. Instead of asking "How shall
we label or categorize this person's distress?", we ask "How
can we alleviate this person's distress, or make it bearable?" And
sometimes the answer is "We cannot do either, at least not soon enough
or well enough".
Such an answer fills us with sadness, and we may try to comfort ourselves
with false hopes. But that comfort accrues to the wrong party. While
we dream, the other person continues to live a nightmare.
To be truly just, we must gather our strength and put others first. And
we must do this even if it means saving them from unbearable tomorrows
in the only way that is currently possible, given the point at which we
happen to be situated along the development curve of human knowledge and
Someday Canada will have laws which embody this maturity and courage. It
may not happen in your lifetime, and Bert Doerksen may have even fewer
years left. But there are powers vested in you which can let a little of
the future wisdom into the present. I urge you to open that window.
Ruth von Fuchs
145 Macdonell Ave.