Dying in the shadows

Categories: In The Media.

By the early 1990s, there were right-to-die organizations in more than two dozen countries with several hundred thousand paying members and tens of millions of unaffiliated believers, according to Richard N. Côté in his book, In Search of Gentle Death: The Fight for Your Right to Die with Dignity. “The self-deliverance genie had been freed from its bottle and had taken on a robust, self-sustaining life,” he writes. But opposition from religious, right to life, and disability groups as well as pro-life medical ethicists had also swelled, with sanctity-of-life proponents articulating fears of a slippery slope leading to Nazi-like atrocities against the weak, the vulnerable, and the elderly.

The problem for people who wanted “chosen” deaths was access. The terminally ill who were wealthy, well-connected, or daring could find the means to end their lives, but many others had no choice but to suffer it out. As Ronald Dworkin wrote in “Assisted Suicide: The Philosopher’s Brief” in the New York Review of Books in March 1997, “the current two-tier system—a chosen death and the end of pain outside the law for those with [medical] connections and stony refusals for most other people—is one of the greatest scandals of contemporary medical practice.”

Given the intransigence of politicians and medical associations to accommodate the wishes of a large part of the general public, Côté described how new technology that circumvented doctors was being developed by campaigners he called “euthanasia activists.” The late John Hofsess, founder of the Right to Die Society and the activist who helped Sue Rodriguez mount a legal and political campaign in favour of physician-assisted death in the early 1990s, was the most prominent Canadian in the underground death movement.

Deeply discouraged by the failure of the Rodriguez challenge at the Supreme Court, the Senate committee’s subsequent failure to recommend abolishing the law against assisted suicide, and Parliament’s intransigence in acting on the modest changes the Senate committee had proposed, Hofsess began shifting his emphasis. He morphed the Right to Die Society into an “overground” political action organization and an “underground” service provider for people who had approached him privately for help in ending their lives. He began by producing and selling a nine-part series of booklets called “The Art and Science of Suicide” describing various “self-deliverance” methods, even offering plastic bags equipped with elastic in a sewn-on casing.

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