Canadian activist appeals to Trudeau to block assisted suicide ruling

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EDMONTON, Alberta – At the age of 30, Mark Pickup was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and began to suffer a steady decline in both his physical health and in his career helping people with disabilities find jobs. Now he’s adding his voice to a renewed push against assisted suicide in Canada, citing his own struggle with irreversible physical decline.

Forced by his afflictions to retire at the age of 38, Pickup said he fell into a clinical depression, and, if not for family and friends, may have ended his life in despair.

“I have suffered emotional, spiritual and physical pain,” said Pickup in an interview from his home in Beaumont, a suburb of Edmonton in Canada’s Alberta province. “Physical pain is easiest to treat. In my opinion, emotional and spiritual pain is much more difficult.”

Yet nearly 30 years later, Pickup, 62, treasures his life with a wife of 43 years, two children and five grandchildren (with another on the way).  Today, Pickup is a devoted advocate for human life, who has testified in opposition to assisted suicide measures before the Canadian Senate and the Massachusetts legislature.  He said he is motivated, in part, by a 1993 case involving a terminally ill British Columbia woman who wanted help when it came time to seek an end to her suffering.

Sue Rodriguez, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, fought for her cause all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, in a case that would have established a legal right to assisted suicide. Pickup, who disagreed with Rodriguez, determined that he would not allow her to speak for everyone who has a debilitating or terminal disease.

Although Rodriguez lost her 1993 case, the justices of Canada’s high court in February struck down that country’s ban on physician-assisted suicide.

Pickup has persisted in fighting to prevent the implementation of the ruling.

Although advocacy groups, such as Dying with Dignity, have pushed for speedy government action, Canadian religious leaders have vocally opposed the ruling. The court gave the government a year to respond. In July, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government set up a panel to study the issue.

With the upset election victory of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party over Harper’s Conservatives, ushering in a new government in Ottawa last week, Pickup saw a chance to renew his efforts to derail implementation of the ruling.

In a Nov. 1 letter to Trudeau, who was sworn in as Prime Minister Nov. 4, Pickup asked him to recall his support for a national suicide prevention policy in 2012 and invoke the government’s power to halt implementation of the court ruling:

“The high court’s odious decision threatens to set back advances in disability inclusion forty years that I and others have fought hard to gain … Physical function is not so important to me anymore; it is love that brings quality to my life now: To love and be loved.”

The dichotomy between the court’s 2015 decision and the suicide prevention act that Parliament passed unanimously in 2012 implies that “some Canadians are worth less and other Canadians are worth more,” Pickup said. He said his concern is that the disabled, elderly and severely ill will be valued less than healthy younger people.

Pickup said he fears that the logical end of this policy will be demands from others for similar rights for the mentally disabled.  Pickup argues for a policy that offers individuals contemplating ending their lives the “chance to work through the grief or the catastrophic illness. … before killing themselves.”

“A national suicide prevention strategy must be for all Canadians, not just the healthy,” he concluded in the letter. So far, Pickup said, he has not received a response.

In February, Trudeau’s Liberals began a push for a law to implement the court ruling before the national election in October, without success.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter at @karabettis