John Hofsess: Humanist Perspectives
The publishers of Humanist Perspectives magazine have done a tremendous job in 2016 to produce excellent, timely edition of importance to Canadian humanists. First there was at the blasphemy issue which featured many articles sourced from Centre For Inquiry Canada (Issue 195 cover at right). CFIC was proud to work with Humanist Perspectives to focus attention on blasphemy laws and their inevitable consequences. Responsive and timely humanist-based journalism is not new to HP – the small non-profit team has been doing this important work for decades!
The spring issue is focussed on physician-assisted dying. The magazine features coverage of the physician-assisted death of John Hofsess – an activist who had assisted in the deaths of 8 people, including one of Canada’s most renowned (if not iconic) poets, Al Purdy. Many Canadians will be surprised to learn of Purdy’s access to physician-assisted death; the revelation should significantly influence the discussion and dialogue surrounding physician assisted death in Canada. Here is a short excerpt from Humanist Perspectives:
Al Purdy joined the Right to Die Society of Canada in 1997. Two years later, I was called upon (as the group’s founder) to give him advice about how best to end his life.… When Al wrote, requesting a private visit, he wanted to know what the Right to Die Society of Canada could do for him. He knew what doctors proposed for him. They’d been treating him for years. He wasn’t inclined to accept his death on their terms.… Al would have the quick, painless death that he desired. I, however, could become branded as his “murderer.” Under current Canadian law, there’s no official distinction between a mutually consensual act of compassionate death and a vicious killing…. In the last weeks of his life, Al seemed more relaxed. He had the comfort of knowing that a worrisome problem had been resolved…
Canadian Poet Al Purdy
The stories of the deaths (and lives) of eminent Canadians such as Al Purdy, John Hofsess or Sue Rodriguez should be understood as the potential stories of all Canadians. Rodriguez’ supreme court fight for physician-assisted death is well documented. In the book Uncommon Will – The Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez (MacMillan Canada 1994), Hofsess’ significant influence on Sue Rodriguez’ fight is also documented:
“Sue later described her testimony as “essentially a plea for help.” She said she loathed describing the manner of her possible demise, which is easy to imagine as normally Sue dreaded saying anything to anyone, even Henry, that could be interpreted as seeking sympathy or showing self-pity. She simply wanted the facts out. She believed that anyone hearing the realities of the fate awaiting her could not condemn her to it. Her own tendency would probably have been to go away, to have died quietly, she said. But Hofsess had “planted the seed to go public and it grew.” She felt appreciative to Hofsess for this until the day she died.”
Connections among people like Hofsess, Rodriguez and Purdy, when considered in historical context rarely surprise us. We expect that people with shared values and visions end up meeting and working together. Indeed, we would be surprised to hear of anything other than unity and co-support among such individuals.
Excerpted below is Madeline Weld’s Humanist Perspectives editorial titled Why are we still criminalizing compassion in Canada?
Tomorrow (February 25) Richard Thain and I will leave for Switzerland to watch a man whom I have yet to meet die. John Hofsess, a right to die activist from Victoria, BC, and head of the former Right to Die Society of Canada, is going to die on February 29, 2016, at the facilities of lifecircle (they don’t capitalize their name), near Basel, Switzerland.
John has many medical problems and a severely compromised quality of life. He does want the assisted voluntary death that lifecircle provides, but, if he’d had his way, he would have stayed alive for several more months, at the very least. After all, he would have wanted to see his book, The Future of Death: True Stories about Assisted Dying, published – which it will be, in electronic format, within a few months by Canadian Humanist Publications. This issue of Humanist Perspectives contains John’s Farewell Note, in which he explains why he is choosing to die now, as well as a chapter from his book, chapter 3, on the assisted death of celebrated Canadian poet Al Purdy. A shorter version of the story of Al Purdy’s assisted death was published earlier this month in Toronto Life (“By the time you read this, I’ll be dead.”) In the last months of his life, John has been working full tilt to finish his book, a definitive work on the history of assisted dying in Canada. It was during this time that I met John electronically; I will meet him in person for a few days before his death.John not only campaigned for the right of terminally ill people to die, he actively helped them die, and thereby became a criminal under Canadian law.
John is choosing to die now because he fears that he may not have the option of an assisted voluntary death after what he has done becomes known. John not only campaigned for the right of terminally ill people to die, he actively helped them die, and thereby became a criminal under Canadian law. Should he be prosecuted, which would be not unlikely based on the legal advice he has received, he could have his passport revoked and would have little possibility of a gentle, legal death. Although the Supreme Court of Canada has extended until June the deadline for Parliament to come up with a new law on assisted dying and provided some leeway for those seeking an assisted death in the interim, it put in place a number of legal hoops, hoops that are not easy for a sick old man with little money to jump through. In addition, even were John capable of meeting these challenges, he may not be given the chance: the activities he engaged in were in clear violation of the law when he carried them out and he could therefore be prosecuted and incarcerated. John does not want to go through the ordeal of a trial nor impose the costs of such a trial (millions of dollars) on his fellow citizens. As John says in his Farewell Note: the rationale for his death is partly ideological, a socio-economic suicide rather than a classic case of a terminally ill person suffering excruciating pain.
It is ironic that John sees it as necessary to terminate his life earlier than he would have chosen based on the spectre of prosecution under laws that will very likely be changed within a few years (or less) of his death. But such, apparently, is the absurdity of life. According to a poll commissioned by Dying with Dignity Canada and conducted in early February of this year by Ipsos Reid, some 80% of respondents supported an assisted death for patients with grievous and irremediable medical conditions. The people seem to be far ahead of the politicians, who are dragging their feet more than 20 years after Sue Rodriguez brought the idea of a legal assisted death to the consciousness of many Canadians.
Richard Thain, a stalwart humanist known to many of us, has been a pillar of support for John in his final struggles. He and I are travelling together to Basel, where we will be picked up by a representative of lifecircle, whose founder, Dr. Erika Preisig, will assist John on his last journey. Dr. Preisig calls herself a village doctor (“Dorfärztin”); for 20 years she also provided palliative care to terminally ill patients. It was when her gravely ill father wished to end his own life that she was first confronted with the idea of assisted voluntary death.
I am hoping to learn much on this trip. I will spend a few days with an organization that has for years provided assisted death in a compassionate way in a country where it is legal to do so. One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, Canadians like John Hofsess will enjoy the same right to a legally assisted death without having to travel overseas.
There are influential individuals in every society who work determinedly and often anonymously with little praise or support to advance human rights and human dignity. Humanist Perspectives Issue 196 provides a public record of the relationships among some of the brave individuals who did the heavy lifting required to secure secular human rights for all Canadians. As the Canadian legislature finalizes physician-assisted death legislation, it is a valuable lesson to examine the role that these individuals played, and also the roles that we all can play. Whether it is the dedicated team that publishes Humanist Perspectives, the growing community at CFI Canada and BC Humanist Association and other humanist organizations or the tireless folks at Dying With Dignity, HP 196 should be a call to Canadian humanists to be active in securing their secular human rights despite those who would deny them.
There is no guarantee that any of the fights we choose to take up will be won during our lifetimes – but that does not change the importance of having been part of them. Hofsess was writing a book, The Future of Death, even to the end of his life. Dr. Richard Thain, a long time friend, volunteer and councillor of CFIC provides an important reference for considering Hofsess’ forthcoming book as well as the work of humanists who seek the advancement and dignity of all people…..
“Even the biggest book is fragmentary: to finish anything, you have to cut your losses. Nobody ever writes his dream book.”
– Northrop Frye (1912-1991, Sherbrooke, Quebec.)
National Executive Director, CFI Canada
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