Q&A: Canada’s right to die decision

A staunch advocate of doctor-assisted death discusses Canada’s decision to reverse the country’s ‘right to die’ ban.

Al Hancock is a Canadian high-altitude climber who has successfully scaled six of the world’s 14 tallest mountains, including Mount Everest twice.

In the next three years, he plans to become the first Canadian to summit all 14 of the world’s peaks over 8000-metres. He is currently training to go back to Nepal to climb Mount Annapurna and Mount Lhotse in March.

The climber is also a staunch advocate of the right to choose doctor assisted dying and a patron of Dying With Dignity Canada after watching his mother die in 2013 following a lengthy battle with bowel cancer.

Al Jazeera spoke to him about Canada’s recent decision to allow adults to request doctor-assisted dying.

Al Jazeera: What was your reaction when you heard the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down the ban on doctor-assisted dying today? 

Al Hancock: Today, February 6, 2015, will go down in history as all Canadians have now been given a voice and in turn they’ve been given a choice.

AJ: This is a very personal issue for you – tell me about how you got started advocating on this issue?

AH: In 2013, on Thanksgiving, my mother passed away from bowel cancer at the age of 76. We watched the transformation of my mother, who seemed to be suffering continually. The nurses would come in and up the morphine but you could tell she was in agony, in pain. This went on for a whole week until she took her last breath.

She was home for just Thanksgiving day, and when I helped her in the car and buckled her in I said I love you mom, and those big beautiful blue eyes looked back and said I love you too son. The next day she never spoke again.

The week before she died, she was at home, in bed. She couldn’t get out but she was aware of what was going on around her. Her family was there and it would have been a great day if she’d had the choice then. I’m not saying she would have chosen it, but she never had that choice. The next day, she was back in the hospital and me and my siblings watched my mother suffer. It was wrong and inhumane. I remember after she died I walked outside the hospital and I thought there’s got to be a better way. And I became a patron with Dying with Dignity.

Eighty-five per cent of Canadians from coast to coast support the right to die with dignity. If an animal was sick, society says it’s inhumane to keep that animal alive. Yet it is okay to do that to our loved ones. That’s morally wrong.

AJ: What type of care was the hospital able to provide in order to mitigate her suffering? 

AH: After her last surgery, the doctor came to me and said, get your family together, there’s nothing more medically we can do for your mother. We knew from that point on that our mother was going to die. The staff at the hospital were great, but all they could do was make her comfortable. I remember that at times she was struggling, choking for air and they’d have to put a tube down her throat. They would come in from time to time to up the medication. But you could still see she was in visible pain. We – my siblings and I – spent the next six days beside her in the hospital and when you see your loved one going through this, it leaves this imprint. And that’s when I knew I had to do something… and became a patron with Dying with Dignity, I believe in this charity and the work these folks are doing.

AJ: Did you ever discuss this subject with your mother, prior to her getting sick? 

AH: We had a discussion about a DNR [do not resuscitate] order with my mother, but death is such a taboo topic, and we need to bring it to the forefront. We need to talk to our loved ones and let them know that if something happens to me, this is what I want done. We don’t have a choice when we’re born into this world, but we should have the choice when we leave.

AJ: Have you now had the discussion with your family?

AH: I’ve had this discussion with people around me. This law is not about you and me making decisions for our loved ones – it’s us making the choices for ourselves. For me, if I come down with a terminal disease and there’s nothing else the medical profession can do, I would love to have the opportunity to choose, before it migrated to a point where I can’t speak or in a coma or suffering. I’d like to be able to bring my family in, tell them that I love them and then nod to the doctor and say okay, and let me go to sleep easily.

AJ: When you mention this to others and your family, what reaction do you get?

AH: At first, the reaction is shock. Why are you talking about death? Then when you explain that everything has a beginning and everything has an end, it’s important to talk about this topic. Then they start seeing that, yes, this is a subject that needs to be discussed. It’s like many other topics that are hidden in the closet but we need to bring those out and express out views. We are not trying to change people’s opinion. We’re saying here’s the facts and make the decision for yourself.

AJ: One of the concerns among the disability community is that the system may lead to abuse, what are your thoughts on that?

AH: Obviously there’s going to be that apprehension and there could be. That’s why we need education and proper laws in place. I don’t look at it as assisted suicide – suicide for me is a different issue, a mental issue – but assisted dying, dying with dignity, is when there’s nothing else the medical community can do for you. Then you should have the right to say it’s time for me to go, this is what I want to happen.
It has to be assisted by a doctor, it would be wrong to ask your sister or brother or parent. If we don’t give people a choice, we silence them. The decision by the Supreme Court has given every Canadian a voice.

My mother would not have wanted her family to see the way she died. She was a beautiful woman. My mother, Rosemary, wasn’t just my mom; she was my north star, my compass in life. I lost a great friend. If it was me, I would have wanted to put things on paper, in print. And that’s what I have to do so that if anything happens to me, and I can still speak and communicate.

Al Hancock plans to become the first Canadian to summit all 14 of the world's peaks over 8000-metres [Al Hancock/Al Jazeera]
Al Hancock plans to become the first Canadian to summit all 14 of the world’s peaks over 8000-metres [Al Hancock/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera