Initially, Sandra Martin balked at taking on the subject of assisted dying when HarperCollins publisher Patrick Crean pitched her the idea in the summer of 2013. As a veteran journalist, Martin’s instincts told her that the complicated debate over granting Canadians greater control of their own deaths was still too fluid to be contained in a book. “It was a daily news story,” she says.
At the time, Martin was still working for The Globe and Mail, where she distinguished herself on a variety of beats, and became known as the country’s pre-eminent author of long-form obituaries, many of which provided material for her 2012 book, Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada (House of Anansi Press). Eventually, Martin’s interest in the human dimension of assisted dying won out. In 2014, she took a buyout from The Globe to focus full time on writing about the past, present, and potential future of euthanasia in Canada.
Soon after Martin started work on the book, in early 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that constitutionally under the Charter of Rights, the terminally ill are legally entitled to physician-assisted suicide in cases of extreme suffering. The federal Conservative government was given a year to respond to the ruling with legislation. Having successfully sought an extension, the new Liberal government has until June to pass a new law. In her struggle to keep pace with events, Martin had one day to rewrite the last chapter of the book to include coverage of a parliamentary committee report on the subject that was released on Feb. 25.
In February, Toronto Life published an article by John Hofsess in which the Canadian right-to-die activist admitted to assisting in the death of eight Canadians, including the poet Al Purdy, something Martin covers in detail in her new book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. Hofsess, with whom Martin communicated several times in 2015, ended his own life at a Switzerland clinic on Feb. 29. Martin and HarperCollins agreed not to publish excerpts detailing Hofsess’s involvement in the deaths of Purdy and others prior to the book’s April release.
To stay on top of the story Martin has created a website to serve as an ongoing addendum to her book. A Good Death offers a thorough account of events, starting with the landmark case of Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Rodriguez, who lost her Supreme Court appeal for an assisted death in 1993, managed to end her life the next year, with the help of then NDP MP Svend Robinson and an unnamed physician. Rodriguez’s cause had been championed by Hofsess and his Right to Die Society of Canada before he and Rodriguez fell out.
Martin’s book deals in depth with the 2014 Quebec law permitting physician-assisted death and the Carter v. Canada case that resulted in the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling, as well as the stories of other assisted-death advocates including activist Maureen Taylor, whose husband, Donald Low, Toronto’s chief medical officer during the 2003 SARS outbreak, died in 2013 of a brain tumour.
While writing the book presented logistical challenges, it also afforded Martin the latitude to express her personal feelings and biases in a way not conventionally permitted in daily newspaper writing. Martin, whose thoughts on the subject evolved during the researching and writing of the book, also had cause to reflect on the death of her mother after a protracted battle with breast cancer in 1982.
“I thought my mother had a ‘good’ death at the time. Now I’m not so sure,” Martin says. “Back then I had no understanding of palliative care or assisted death. As a family we never even discussed the fact that she was terminally ill. Many things have changed enormously since then. As a society we want choices, but with choice comes the responsibility to contemplate our end-of-life wishes and to make them known to our families and our health care and legal practitioners.”