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Fighting for a right to die

Gary Pettifor stares down at the table in front of him, an empty cardboard coffee cup in his right hand, the fingers of his left hand curled into a fist.

Gary Pettifor stares down at the table in front of him, an empty cardboard coffee cup in his right hand, the fingers of his left hand curled into a fist.

“The way our society handles death is just not respectful,” says the Marsh Lake resident, his eyes lowered, his voice marked by weariness.

In the last two years, Pettifor has watched his mother, his father and his father-in-law die slow, painful deaths.

Most recently, his mother, Tina Pettifor, died on May 9. She had been sick for the previous two years but near the end of April she suffered a stroke that left her bed-ridden.

“When she had the stroke that was it,” Pettifor said. “She had no quality of life anymore. She’d had enough.”

It was then 13 days of hell, Pettifor said, as she starved herself until her passing.

Each day the nurses would bring apple juice, Tina’s favourite, but she had made up her mind.

“I think she deserved a lot better,” Pettifor said. “I think a doctor should have come in and given her a needle and let her fall asleep, peacefully.”

Pettifor had watched the same scenario play out with his father George, who died at 88.

George suffered a heart-attack “that ended any sort of good life.” His health problems worsened, and with his lungs damaged from a long firefighting career, surgery wasn’t an option. He was open about his desire to move on.

“He’d had enough. He knew his health wasn’t going to get any better, only worse,” Pettifor said. “He said he wanted to die the next morning and be cremated by the afternoon. He wanted the right to a dignified death.”

It took about four weeks for George to starve himself to death.

Pettifor’s father-in-law, Josef Beisser, died in 2011. Two months before his retirement from the lumber industry he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and survived for 19 years with the disease before eventually ending up in Copper Ridge Place.

When he realized he would never leave the full-care facility he told the family that he no longer wished to live.

“We had to tell him that wasn’t an option,” Pettifor said. “He and my dad said the exact same thing, ‘You wouldn’t treat a dog like this. You wouldn’t treat an animal this way, why would you treat me this way?’”

Fourteen months after arriving in Copper Ridge Place, Beisser died.

The debate surrounding euthanasia and assisted-suicide was brought back into the national consciousness last week when Quebec’s Bill C-52 was reintroduced in the national assembly.

Euthanasia is defined as intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering. In assisted suicide, a physician provides a patient with medication and the patient administers the lethal dose, whether it be a needle or a pills, at their own hand.

Bill C-52 calls for the legalization of both physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, following similar legislation that’s in place in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium.

The bill was put on hold earlier this year when the provincial election was called and revived last week after an unanimous vote.

If it were to pass, it would be the first bill in Canadian history to legalize physician-assisted suicide, allowing doctors to administer lethal injections to patients in Quebec who are in “constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain.”

Currently, Canada yields one of the most severe punishments in the world for euthanasia, an indictable offence that can result in to up to 14 years in prison.

Pettifor believes it’s time for that to change.

“There’s just no option for assisted suicide, for people who’ve decided they’ve had enough. Why should we be putting them through hell?”

He recalled sitting by his mother’s side in her final days. “I thought it would be so easy to give her some sleeping pills or put the pillow over her face,” he said.

“It’s so hard to see the ones you love suffer. Obviously we didn’t do that but those thoughts are there.”

South of the border, assisted suicide is currently legal in five U.S. states: Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana.

Opponents of Quebec’s Bill C-52 warn that the language is imprecise and could be open to abuse by doctors.

Broader arguments against euthanasia include religious convictions and that proper palliative care makes euthanasia unnecessary.

Dr. Ken Quong, president of the Yukon Medical Association, said the YMA has “not taken any position” on the matter.

Pettifor, on the other hand, is adamant about sharing his story. “I’ve talked to well over 200 people,” he said, “and not a single one has disagreed with me.”

Pettifor has drafted a letter, detailing the deaths of his mother, father and father-in-law, that he will be sending to MP Ryan Leef, and 303 members of Parliament.

“I think it’s time for society to take a step further and respect people a little more,” he said.

“If people have too much pain or if there’s no quality of life anymore and there’s no coming back then I think we should respect their wishes. It frees up hospital space for people who want to live, it saves the government money, it saves the family money, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Contact Sam Riches at