The problem of absolutes

Bill C-7, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying), is in the news, again, as the government seeks another legal delay while it tries to make a law that does not offend someone’s Charter rights.

Back in September of 2019 a Québec judge ruled that the existing Canadian and Québec laws that restricted medical assistance in dying to those who were unconstitutional because the “requirement that a natural death be “reasonably foreseeable” before someone can be eligible for assisted death” discriminated against people whose suffering was intolerable but who were not near death.

I sympathize with the two people who asked Justice Christine Baudouin for help. And, generally, I support the judge’s conclusions ~ as well as I understand them. My problem is that I believe that all rights are universal; they must apply, equally, to all of regardless of race or creed or anything else, which, I suppose, includes mental capacity, and they must apply to the governed and the governors, alike. But I do make some exceptions: I believe, for example that it is right and proper and just and MUST be constitutional to deprive a person of their rights while, for example, they are serving a prison term. I think that giving prisoners the right to vote, as Canada does, is a monumentally bloody silly idea that takes the absolute nature of rights a step too far for me. The Charter, our top court says, requires it; prisoners don’t cease having rights just because they have committed a crime. That means, to me, that the Charter is flawed and needs to be amended … a lot.

But, here’s another “but:” what about a person who is mentally handicapped? Do they have all the “rights” that I say are universal or is there some sensible limit to rights? Can a mentally handicapped person make the sort of informed decision that seeking to end one’s own life should require? I have known more than one person with what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who simply couldn’t endure the continuous pain and decided, one-day, to end their life. They were mentally “able” enough to figure out how to end their own lives but I’m about 99% certain that many medical professionals would declare them to be mentally handicapped (by pain which is every bit as real as the pain of a physical wound) or even mentally disabled.

I don’t have any answers, but, in my opinion:

  • Every person, everyone over the age of, say, 18, ought to be able to seek medical assistance in dying ~ no exceptions; but
  • No person can be required to provide any assistance, not even in providing information, to anyone who wants to take their own life; and
  • No physician or nurse or any other “medical” person may ever be brought to court for refusing to provide any assistance (or even information) about taking on’s own life.

In other words, everyone, even the young and even the mentally ill, must be able to end their own lives … suicide may be a sin but it ought not to be a crime. But no one can be forced, in any way, to do something that violates their moral code. (And, yes, I know that means that bakers can, therefore, refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings.) If, as our Charter seems to imply, we are going to have absolutes ~ if a right cannot be arbitrarily limited ~ then we had better get used to the notion that the idea cuts both ways. If A has an absolute right to seek something, including a dignified death, then B has an equally absolute right to refuse to help; B has a right to refuse to provide a service if it offends their moral standards.

Absolutes are a problem, especially when they are written down. It’s another reason why I wish we had an unwritten Constitution.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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