N.S. woman plans to die on Thursday, saying Ottawa is forcing early death on her
Published Wednesday, October 31, 2018 8:00AM ADT Last Updated Wednesday, October 31, 2018 2:07PM ADT
HALIFAX -- Audrey Parker has decided to end her life on Thursday.
She has approached it as a political act -- an important public statement about Canada's relatively new assisted dying law.
The 57-year-old Halifax woman says she is thankful the law will allow her to end the excruciating pain caused by cancerous tumours in her bones, but she says the legislation has left her in a terrible bind.
In recent weeks, the platinum-haired former ballroom dance instructor has spoken out -- on social media, in newspapers, on TV -- about how the two-year-old law is forcing her to choose to die sooner than she wants.
"You don't want to die earlier than you have to," she said in a recent interview in her Halifax apartment, where she has waged a very public campaign about a delicate subject that most would shy away from.
"There's no reason I should have to die on Nov. 1 ... I want to live as many days as I can."
The problem, Parker says, is that people seeking medical assistance in dying must meet a set of criteria that she says appear to make no sense.
Applicants must be in an advanced state of decline and experiencing unbearable physical or mental suffering caused by a grievous, irreversible medical condition, which means their natural death "has become reasonably foreseeable."
Parker, diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in early 2016, meets all of those conditions.
"All the tumours in my skeleton are killing me," she says in a blunt, matter-of-fact tone that makes it clear she has accepted her fate. "My brain is constantly telling me: 'Cut those legs off. Cut those arms off ... Get away from that pain.' It's so heinous."
She has been assessed and approved for a medically assisted death.
But there's a catch.
Under the law, she must be mentally competent immediately before she gives consent for her assisted death.
If her painkillers or cancer render her unconscious or mentally incompetent before that crucial moment, the procedure must not be carried out. A medically assisted death under those circumstances would be illegal.
In Ottawa, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, the federal minister of health, told reporters she would like to assist Parker, but the federal legislation can't be altered without completing consultations on potential reforms.
"As Health Minister, I can tell you if I could change that law for her specifically I would. But as the minister, as a Parliamentarian, we have to have a law in place for all Canadians," she said.
She said that a special report by experts will consider the issues Parker is raising in a report due by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, Parker is continuing to plan her death as best she can.
"It's unfortunate that I have to pick a date ... but I'm not going to wait around and lose that window," says Parker, whose varied career has also included working as a fundraiser, buyer in the fashion industry and as a makeup artist and television floor director.
"I don't want to let my mother see me suffering. I don't want my friends to see me suffering."
Despite the heavy subject matter, Parker remains animated and upbeat while discussing her weighty predicament.
However, it's clear she has been through an agonizing ordeal.
She mentions having to take large doses of the painkiller Dilaudid to manage her pain. Her hair was recently cut short to help her deal with a rising body temperature.
Still, she speaks with passion and clear-eyed authority about her cause, refusing to give in to maudlin sentiments.
"I'm changing this law," she says with a smile. "I'm so close to changing it."
The existing law doesn't permit the use of what are known as advance requests -- written instructions for a medically assisted death that must be implemented whether or not the person is able to consent.
The law was written to ensure that vulnerable people who are unable to speak for themselves are not put in a position where someone else decides whether they live or die. When the law was being drafted, some outspoken advocates for people with disabilities made it clear that protections had to be put in place.
Other critics have suggested it could be difficult to determine a person's level of suffering if they can no longer describe their pain. And there may be cases where a person with dementia or some other type of mental illness becomes mentally incompetent but isn't suffering.
Parker said the change she is seeking should only apply to her category: mentally sound, adult applicants who have already made their life-ending wishes known at the conclusion of a rigorous assessment process.
"The (federal government) hasn't set up (the law) to make it useful, and they're lumping everyone together," Parker said.
Ottawa should amend the law to give people like her the option of drafting an advance request that would remain in force for 12 months before being renewed, she said.
Jocelyn Downie, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said legislating advance requests has already been recommended by a provincial-territorial expert advisory group and a joint committee of the Senate and House of Commons.
As well, the issue will be dealt with in early December, when experts with the Council of Canadian Academies submits three reports to Parliament, one of which will deal specifically with advance requests.
"I think Audrey Parker will be very much in people's minds," said Downie.
"She is the most compelling of cases because she already has been informed that she meets the criteria. Many of the arguments that go against advance requests don't actually apply in her circumstance ... To me, there is no justification for not allowing her to make an advance request."
Downie said Canadians already have the option of drafting so-called advance directives that spell out what kind of end-of-life treatment they want to receive should they become unable to communicate with a doctor, including the withdrawal of life-support systems.
"I don't think there's a morally sustainable distinction there," Downie said.
In June, Health Canada confirmed that a total of 3,714 Canadians had ended their lives with the help of doctor or nurse practitioner since medically assisted dying became legal -- in Quebec in December 2015 and nationwide in July 2016.
Parker said she plans to gather with a small group of friends on Wednesday to say goodbye.
"Everyone is starting to have a hard time," she said. "I'm going to be here one day and not the next."
As for her final wishes, Parker plans to start Thursday with a hearty breakfast: lobster eggs benedict.
And when it comes time for a medically assisted lethal injection, Parker says she will be surrounded by her three best friends, her mother, a roommate and her niece. Also in the room will be singer-songwriter Laura Smith, who will be singing as Parker gazes upon some of her favourite artworks.
"I'm sure there will be some tears," she said. "But I'm really at peace with it. I feel good about it ... I'm not afraid to die."