Laws Evolve – Even When It Comes to Death

There have been several recent stories in the papers relating to legal restrictions on the right to choose the timing of one’s death or that of a family member.

One story related to Nagui Morcos, a man with late stage Huntington’s. He chose to end his life rather than continue forward knowing the fate that awaited him, having witnessed his father’s deterioration and eventual death at the hand of this illness. His doctor had no ability to actively assist him in carrying out his choice, given potential College of Physician discipline and criminal sanctions. Those who did assist him could face potential charges for doing so.

The other story is that of Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer who chose to end the life of his disabled daughter who had cerebral palsy. He was initially sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for second-degree murder. His case went through various appeal stages, including a new trial in which he again was once again found guilty of second-degree murder in 1997. He was granted parole in 2010. He continues to serve his life sentence in the community, but as he is on parole his movements are restricted. He was recently granted permission to travel to the UK to sit on a panel debating both sides of the right to die issue.

These stories raise the very difficult legal and moral issues of the right to take your own life or that of a family member under your care – ending life earlier than would otherwise occur to avoid pain and progressive physical/mental impairment. The decision to end one’s own life is made while capacity still exists, yet is a decision made in anticipation of the capacity fading and becoming non-existent as the illness progresses. In deciding to end the life of a family member, it is a debate that involves quality of life and ending the suffering endured by that loved one.

My personal views on the correctness of the current laws or any need for change are irrelevant. But these two stories are very good examples of how laws are challenged, forcing lawmakers (the government and the courts) to consider modifications over time to meet the evolving standards of society. Some laws are easily changed. Others, such as the issue of the right to die, require significant debate and hand-wringing.

Powers of Attorney for Personal Care, which we regularly draft as part of a comprehensive estate planprepared by our office, are essentially all that need be done to ensure that your wishes are carried out should you become incapacitated. They do not allow your Attorney to decide to end your life, but they can provide the power to decide when no further treatment is to be given to you – a decision you would no longer be able to make on your own. Until such time that the laws on the right to die change, if ever, this is the most protection that you can afford yourself should you lose the capacity to make decisions on your own regarding treatment of your own illness.

Paul H. Voorn