Euthanasia, or assisted suicide as it is often called, is very much the topic du jour in Canada.
It is typically framed around the question of rights: Shouldn’t those who wish to die with minimal pain have the right to do so?
But as an unusual Winnipeg court case illustrates, death — and the obligations of the living — are complicated matters.
The case revolves around 62-year-old musician Ron Siwicki, who is accused of allowing his mother, Betty, to die after she fell in her north Winnipeg home.
What happened is not entirely clear. A publication ban was imposed on evidence presented at Siwicki’s bail hearing Monday.
But earlier published reports say that at some point last year, Betty Siwicki fell and injured herself. She was unable to get back into bed.
The Winnipeg Free Press says that her son, who lived with her, left his mother on the floor and covered her with a blanket. He is said to have provided her with nutritional drinks and water until she died.
According to the Free Press, she fell in late November and lay dying on the floor for a lengthy period of time. According to The Canadian Press, she fell in mid-December.
What does seem clear is that on Dec. 17, her son was arrested by police.
Ron Siwicki’s lawyer, Mike Cook, told reporters that the elderly woman didn’t want any medical help after she fell and that her son was merely complying with a mother’s wishes.
The Free Press also reported that Betty Siwicki was suffering from dementia.
The Free Press and The Canadian Press say she was 90 when she died. CBC and the National Post say she was 89.
I left messages with both Ron Siwicki and his lawyer to try to clear up some of these discrepancies. Neither called back.
Eventually the courts will decide whether Ron Siwicki is guilty of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessities of life, the two counts with which he is charged.
But as his lawyer has pointed out, this case is not just about the Siwickis. It is also about how society treats the death of those who may not want their lives prolonged.
Currently, most public attention has focused on a few high-profile cases of terminally ill patients who want medical help in committing suicide.
The Supreme Court of Canada is due to offer a decision soon on an application brought by two British Columbia women (now both dead) who suffered from debilitating conditions and claimed a constitutional right to assisted suicide.
The top court turned down a similar application in 1993 from Sue Rodriguez, a B.C. woman suffering with ALS. But it could change its mind.
Meanwhile, Quebec has legalized, under certain conditions, the euthanasia of terminally ill patients who want to die.
Although public attention often focuses on middle-aged people with unusually debilitating illnesses (Rodriguez, for instance died at 44), statistics show that those most likely to be euthanized are considerably older.
In Belgium, for instance, where euthanasia has been legal since 2002, 85 per cent of those killed are over 60.
In that sense, euthanasia has emerged as one of society’s responses to the skyrocketing costs associated with an aging population.
It may be more humane to help those who want to end their lives. But in many cases it is also considerably cheaper than keeping them alive.
We shall see what happens with Winnipeg musician Siwicki. The courts may find he failed his basic obligations as a human being.
Conversely, he could emerge as a trail blazer in the battle around assisted suicide — a son who did his best to ensure that his mother’s wishes, however inchoately expressed, were followed.
What we do know is that, regardless of the courts, public support for euthanasia is on the rise.
It used to be seen as something from the Nazi era. In these harsh days, it is viewed by many as a necessary blessing.