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Book Reviews

Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die: The Complexities of Assisted Dying

by Nikki Tate and Belle Wuthrich (ill.)

Death is an inevitability. But according to this topical read, what is up for considerable debate is “who and what determines when and how we die.” Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die pulls back the curtain on a subject that is as difficult to discuss as it is to reconcile.   

In a steady, clear voice, and with an aim to inform more than persuade, Alberta author Nikki Tate outlines the legally acceptable methods of assisted dying and objectively explores the intertwined medical, political, religious, and ethical concerns surrounding end-of-life decisions. Chapters even-handedly discuss the nature of suffering, the potential for abuse of vulnerable populations, and how the terms often used to describe this subject (assisted suicide, euthanasia) can be imprecise and polarizing.

Provocative, theoretical questions are considered from different viewpoints. When are superhuman efforts to save the life of someone in great pain and suffering justified and when are they misguided? Should doctors be forced to carry out a patient’s wishes if it goes against the doctor’s beliefs? Should the law allow family members to make end-of-life decisions for loved ones? This comprehensive guide makes abundantly clear there are no easy answers.   

The author’s own circuitous journey through the complex subject matter is reflected in the book’s structure. Topics are revisited as more nuances are presented, and Tate also speaks candidly and eloquently about her family’s challenging experiences.  This honestly expressed tension between intellectual, abstract philosophical musings and the immediate, gut-wrenching emotional reactions when personally grappling with end-of-life wishes is poignantly authentic.

Scattered throughout the pages are illuminating facts – in Switzerland, for example, “70 per cent of those who are eligible for assisted dying do not take advantage of it.” Individuals who fought for the right to die are profiled in sidebars, including Sue Rodriguez who appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1993. These affecting case studies underscore the core message: “Dying may be a universal experience, but it’s also a deeply personal matter; each death is as unique as the person’s life that came before.”

Adding visual interest and commentary are annotated photographs and Belle Wuthrich’s graphically bold illustrations, including the affecting scene of a patient’s intravenous drip coiled into the shape of a heart while their hand is being held.    

An important work that fills a void, Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die honestly addresses one of the hardest realities of growing up: “life and death are rarely as straightforward as we’d wish.”