’Dignity in death has energized my will to live’

For one MS sufferer, the Supreme Court ruling on doctor-assisted death brings relief. For another, it was too late.
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

Linda Jarrett had just celebrated her 50th birthday at home in Kitchener, Ont., when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that often disables the nervous system, for which there is no known cure. Since then, she’s had to cross many of her favourite activities–running, skiing, curling, tennis–off the list of things she can do. Jarrett, now 66, relies on stair gliders and electric scooters to get around. “I’m disabled, but I live my life quite independently,” she says.

Jarrett’s doctors can’t give her a prognosis–she has no idea how much longer she has left to live. She hadn’t given much thought about the end of her life until two years ago, when she heard a man on the radio describe how he hastened his own death instead of succumbing to the worst of MS. Taking control of the disease before it’s too late was appealing, but it also scared her. She worried about the laws at the time, which made it a crime for doctors to help their patients die. “I was really hating the thought that I might be forced to end my life earlier than I needed to–when I could still do it to myself–so that I didn’t implicate anyone else,” she says.

But on Friday morning, when the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down those laws, Jarrett’s fears turned into relief. “It hasn’t miraculously made it a possibility for me to have a doctor-assisted death,” she says. “But it’s the start of a process that is going to be in place when my quality of life isn’t acceptable to me. I will be able to leave peacefully, with the assistance of a doctor.”

Even though Parliament still has one year to craft new legislation to bring the decision into effect, and it is still a crime to help someone commit suicide, Terry O’Neill wishes his wife Laurie could have been alive to hear the court’s decision.

Laurie started experiencing bouts of numbness and mobility troubles when she was 27. But it wasn’t until after she gave birth to their first child five years later that the doctors told her she had MS. In 2007, when she was 48, the symptoms got worse. She eventually started using a wheelchair full-time, after spending most of her life running and hiking around their home and Prince George. By this January, she could no longer bathe or take care of herself. Laurie started making plans to end her life before she needed diapers.

On Jan. 6, Laurie called her husband at work to tell him she was going to stop eating and drinking that day. It was the way she thought was best for her husband and son. “She was really worried about having liability passed to us if she decided to end her own life,” says Terry. For three weeks, Terry, his son, and their friends cared for Laurie while she ate and drank less everyday. During her final few days, she just chewed ice chips.

Laurie’s doctor came to the house one day, and they were all hoping she would sign an expected death form, which meant that Terry wouldn’t have to call 911 when Laurie died, and the coroner wouldn’t need to examine her body. But at the last minute, her doctor refused, not wanting to take any legal risks. “Given the opportunity, she would have done it differently. That people couldn’t dictate how her life would end,” he says. Laurie passed away on Jan. 26. “Instead of taking three weeks to die, she would have taken a moment to die, it would have been a lot more humane and respectful.”

Many are disappointed with the ruling, calling it an affront to the sanctity of life. Groups such as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are calling on Parliament to use its notwithstanding clause to uphold the ban on doctor-assisted suicide. But for Jarrett, there couldn’t be a better time to be pro-life in Canada. “I am in charge of making sure that I live my life as well as I can until the point when that isn’t possible,” she says.  “And knowing I have dignity in death has energized my will to live.”