The case of Nancy B., a young Quebec woman of 24, exposed the confusion over euthanasia which exists among members of the legal and medical professions and the media.
Nancy suffers from a rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is curable in most cases but not in hers. The brain and spinal cord remain intact, but the disease attacks the central nervous system and paralyses the body’s muscles, including the lungs.
Thus, Nancy is paralyzed from the neck down, and kept alive only by a respirator.
The Hotel Dieu hospital in Quebec City, or the physician involved, was apparently worried that charges could be laid under the Criminal Code with assisting or counseling suicide, if the support system were to be removed.
At Nancy’s request, however, the Quebec Superior Court was asked at the end of November to order the hospital to disconnect her respirator and allow her to die. Judge Jacques Dufour, who went to her bedside, was obviously very moved by seeing her, and said that it would be extremely difficult for him to render a decision after meeting her.
What are the issues in her case?
Lawyer Anne Lapointe contends that Nancy is being discriminated against, that is, denied the right to refuse medical treatment because she is disabled. Such refusal, she maintains, is a fundamental right recognized under the Criminal Code.
Nancy’s doctor, Daniele Marceau, said that there is no hope of improvement in Nancy’s condition and sees this as a precedent-setting case regarding a right to die and a right to a minimum quality of life. “There is no consensus on euthanasia and that is why we are in court today,” she offered.
Similarly Rhéal Sequin wrote in the Globe and Mail, “According to some legal experts, the case could set the legal parameters for some form of euthanasia, which is illegal [now] in Canada.”
The editors of his paper went much farther, in an editorial entitled “Exercising the right to die.”
It all boils down to a matter of personal choice, they said: “If a person of sound mind, after long deliberation and much suffering wishes to be allowed to die, it is better that the power of the state not impede that choice.” A person has the right to refuse treatment from the outset; why is there not a right to refuse treatment from the outset; why is there not a right to refuse it in such circumstance as Nancy B’s?, the editors asked.
Edgar says to Gloucester in King Lear,
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither.
There is no such thing as a right to die; there is no such thing as a right to suicide. Canadian medical and legal tradition basically reflects the religious view that we are stewards of our bodies, not absolute masters of them. The issue here has little o do with a minimum quality of life. Nor is it concerned with euthanasia, mercy killing, strictly speaking.
We are expected to use ordinary means to preserve our lives, but we have no obligation to use extraordinary means. To distinguish between the two is not always easy, but Nancy B’s situation is clear-cut: she is kept alive only by extraordinary means, and the hospital has no compelling reason to continue them.
The doctors say that there is no possibility of improvement in her condition. When she asks to be disconnected from the respirator, she is acting in a completely moral way, not committing suicide, not exercising a so-called right to die.
“The day I’m unplugged.” She has said, “If God chooses that I live, I’ll accept His decision, as well as my handicap. If He takes me, all the better.” This very moving statement shows that she has a far more mature understanding of her predicament than the lawyers, doctors, and newspaper editors who comment on it.