In 2013, Dr. Donald Low, microbiologist in chief at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. Seven months later he was gone. But he was unable to die on his own terms, by medically-assisted death, as the procedure was not yet legal in Canada.
That law changed in 2015 with Carter v. Canada, when the supreme court struck down the federal prohibition on euthansia. Bill C-14 became law June 17, 2016, but critics say the new law is more restrictive than the Carter ruling, which allowed “any consenting, competent adult suffering intolerably from a grievous and irremediable medical condition” to access a medically-assisted death. As of Canada’s current ruling, assisted death is only available to those terminally ill whose natural death must be “reasonably foreseeable,” leaving out people who stand to live through many years of suffering.
In a video made just eight days before his death Dr. Low, who was credited with leading the city of Toronto through the 2003 SARS crisis, said “I’m just frustrated not to be able to have control of my own life. Not being able to have the decision for myself when enough is enough.” He goes on to implore those who oppose assisted suicide to reconsider their views, and put themselves in the shoes of those who wish to have a “beautiful death.”
Here are a few stories of those who were able to die with dignity, on their own terms.
JP Campbell, Ontario
A 63-year-old radio DJ from Smiths Falls, Ontario, JP Campbell was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and according to his daughter “did not want to live if he couldn’t walk or talk.”
Just over eight months after his diagnosis, he was given a lethal injection by a doctor, surrounded by his family as he wished. His family is now speaking out about the hope the new bill gave Campbell when he was suffering.
Betsy Davis, California
41-year-old artist Betsy Davis in Ojai, California, hosted a two-day party for her friends and family to celebrate life and say goodbye before legally taking the dose of drugs that killed her. Attendees danced, ate good food, laughed and shared memories with Davis. The only rule at the farewell? No crying. Davis had ALS and had lost mobility over the years, rendering her unable to paint, stand, or speak with ease. She was one of the first people to die by assisted suicide in California.
Ovidio Gonzalez, Colombia
The first person to die legally by euthanasia in Colombia was 79-year-old Ovidio Gonzalez, who suffered from terminal throat cancer. While the procedure was approved by Colombia’s constitutional court in the ‘90s, the lack of regulation surrounding the sensitive issue meant that no assisted suicides were performed until the government legalized assisted dying in 2015. Gonzalez had the support of his family, and said that he felt “relief” when the procedure was approved after a long legal battle.
Brittany Maynard, Portland
This 29-year-old woman made a video about her journey to assisted death that touched millions of people. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given only six months to live, Maynard and her family moved to Portland, Oregon in order to have access to the state’s Death With Dignity Act. In the lead up to her final days, Maynard travelled with her husband and mother to places she’d always wanted to see, like the Grand Canyon. The video in which she explains her decision and tells her story has been viewed over eleven million times.
John Hofsess, Switzerland
John Hofsess was a right-to-die activist who helped eight people die between 1999 and 2001, outside of the boundaries of Canadian law. Allegedly included in that list is celebrated Canadian poet Al Purdy, who was thought to have died in his sleep from lung cancer in 2000. However an article penned by Hofsess in 2016 for Toronto Life revealed that Purdy employed Hofsess’ services to end his life. Hofsess established the Right to Die Society of Canada in 1991, and he himself died by assisted suicide in Switzerland, February 2016.
John Shields, British Columbia
John Shields, a former priest, social worker, labour leader and head of the Land Conservancy of B.C. discovered he had a rare, terminal blood disease after a car accident in 2015. Having witnessed a friend pass away from a painful and disabling disease, Shields was terrified of facing a similar fate. “One quality of life that’s important to me is my dignity — and sparing anxiety for my wife and daughter,” he said in an interview.
Shields was approved to die by lethal injection, administered by his doctor. He wanted to have an Irish wake before he passed away, and everything was done to his specification, down to his last supper of rotisserie chicken legs with gravy from Swiss Chalet. Two dozen people came to say goodbye and serenaded him with the Celtic folk song “The Parting Glass.” In his final moments, he was surrounded by his loved ones, just as he had wanted.
For more on medically-assisted death, watch Road to Mercy on CBC Firsthand.