Politics

Frustrated widow wants Liberals to expand assisted dying rules 2 years after landmark decision

Two years after a landmark ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada on doctor-assisted death, the widow of a man who travelled to Switzerland to end his life wants the government to ease the rules.

John Schreurs travelled to Switzerland to end his life because he didn't qualify under Canada's new law

John Schreurs, centre, did not qualify for medical assistance in dying in Canada so he travelled to Switzerland to end his own life on Sept. 8, 2016. This photo was taken with his son Ryan and daughter Caitlin in Zurich before his death. (Courtesy Erin Schreurs)

Trapped in an ailing body and desperate to die, John Schreurs left his home in small-town Ontario, and ended his life in a foreign country.

The 54-year-old former mechanical designer and volunteer firefighter travelled to Switzerland last year because he did not qualify for medical assistance under Canada's new federal law.

"It was a mental struggle for him from start to finish," his widow Erin Schreurs told CBC News. "You finally get to a point where you don't want to live anymore, and you've got to get on a plane and still sell your story to a foreign doctor."

The landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision on doctor-assisted death, delivered exactly two years ago today, had given her husband hope for a dignified death.

He had suffered more than six years with Huntington's disease, which Erin describes as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and Parkinson's "all wrapped up in a package." 

"He started talking about the last Easter, the last birthday, the last Christmas, because he believed he would qualify and that would get him out of the trap his body and mind had become," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Innerkip, a village in southwestern Ontario.

Watching political process unfold

Her husband anxiously watched the political process unfold, pleased with the special parliamentary committee that recommended broad parameters for doctor-assisted death along with strict safeguards to protect the vulnerable.

But by the May long weekend last year, Schreurs came to realize he would likely be excluded by the government's new legislation, which ultimately required a "reasonably foreseeable" death.

John Schreurs, right, wanted a 'dignified death' after suffering from Huntington's disease. This photo was taken on a trip to Ottawa with his wife Erin and daughter Caitlin in 2013. (Courtesy Erin Schreurs)

With attempts to starve himself and overdose on pills unsuccessful, his plan turned to travelling to Switzerland.

He died on Sept. 8, 2016, with the assistance of Dignitas, a Swiss non-profit organization that helps people with chronic or terminal illnesses end their lives.

Today, a group of politicians and advocates, including NDP MP Murray Rankin, held a news conference on Parliament Hill asking the Liberals to fix a "flawed" and overly restrictive law that causes prolonged patient suffering or forces Canadians to die abroad.

Calls to fix law

"I'm sad to say it's clear now that the problems identified by experts both in the medical and legal fields are now the reality for many suffering Canadians," said Rankin, a former law professor who served on the special committee that advised the government on medical aid in dying.

Canada's new law, which came into effect on June 17, 2016, limits assisted death to mentally competent adults who have serious and incurable illness, disease or disability where death is imminent.

It excluded some of the most contentious recommendations from a parliamentary committee that studied the issue, including extending the right to die to "mature minors" and the mentally ill, and allowing advance consent for patients with degenerative disorders.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, said at the news conference too many Canadians are disqualified.

NDP says government's assisted-dying legislation is failing Canadians

5 years ago
1:11
NDP Justice Critic Murray Rankin and Josh Paterson, the Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association outline how they see that Canada's doctor assisted-dying legislation isn't working. 1:11

"People have been cut out of their constitutional right because of the requirement that a person's death be reasonably foreseeable," he said.

Political interests trump patient care

Logistical challenges forced Schreurs into "task mode," making all the required arrangements from travel schedules to medical appointments for her husband and foreign money transfers. All in, the costs were about $30,000 for her, their son and daughter to accompany him to Switzerland so he could die.

She doesn't want others to go through the same experience. She believes those who passed the law put political interests ahead of patient care. 

"They already know what the courts recommended, they've already had the special committee. What gives them the right to not follow those recommendations? Why do they think they know better?" she asked.

Current legislation came after a unanimous landmark ruling on Feb. 6, 2015, by the Supreme Court of Canada, which found the ban on physician-assisted death violated Canadians' charter rights.

Legal appeal underway

The case involved two B.C. women who wanted to end their lives with medical help. Both died before the court ruled.

Gloria Taylor, who had a neurodegenerative disease, eventually died of an infection. Kay Carter, then 89, travelled to Switzerland. 

Independent reviews of three issues identified in Bill C-14 as requiring further study is now underway, with a report due by December 2018. 

Julia Lamb, a B.C. woman with spinal muscular atrophy, and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association have  launched a legal challenge of the new law, arguing it is too narrow.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections.

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