Adam Maier-Clayton’s controversial right-to-die campaign
A year ago, Canada legalised medically assisted suicide for terminally ill people approaching death. But one man's activism has forced Canada to ask difficult and controversial questions about the limits on an individual's right to die.
In the basement of his father’s home in Windsor, Ontario, Adam Maier-Clayton lays out orange prescription bottles full of pills. They contain just some of the medication that doctors have given him to treat his mental health condition.
In a video posted on YouTube, he lists the anti-depressants, mood stabilisers and tranquilisers he’s taken, as well as “lots and lots of therapy”.
Adam’s mental health problems first emerged in childhood. He suffered from obsessive thoughts, depression and anxiety.
Later, as a talented soccer player and prolific goal scorer, he’d bind his fingers with tape to try to stop his physical tics from distracting him from his game.
But after experimenting with cannabis for the first time at the age of 23, Adam’s symptoms worsened significantly.
“Man, it knocked him right off his tracks,” his father Graham told me.
“He was in and out of hospital for six or seven days. He suffered depersonalisation, a kind of ‘other worldliness.’ Doctors thought it was just a temporary effect of the drug – but it brought about a permanent change in him and things started to go downhill from there on.”
Adam began experiencing crippling physical pain throughout his body. He described the experience as akin to being “burned with acid”.
Any kind of cognitive activity, such as reading, writing or even talking for more than a short time, made the pain worse and left him incapacitated for hours afterwards.
He was diagnosed with Somatic Symptom Disorder, a psychiatric condition characterised by physical complaints that aren’t faked but can’t always be traced to a known medical illness.
In June 2016, as Adam’s bouts of pain were becoming ever more frequent and debilitating, Canada’s federal parliament passed a landmark piece of legislation.
The law is called Bill C-14.
It legalises physician-assisted suicide, provided certain strict criteria are met.
“C-14 allows people who are broadly conceived to be at the end of life, who are 18 years old or older, who suffer from a serious disease or disability, who have irreversible decline in capabilities and who suffer unbearably to obtain medical assistance in dying – basically a doctor or a nurse who will be able to end their lives,” explains Trudo Lemmens, Professor of Health Law and Policy at the University of Toronto.
The boundaries permitting assisted suicide under Bill C-14 are deliberately narrow in scope – and exclude people suffering solely from a mental illness who aren’t also grievously and terminally ill.
Adam Maier-Clayton believed the law was ambiguous, unconstitutional and discriminatory.
Convinced his condition was untreatable, he began a vocal campaign of media activism, arguing that Canada should follow the example of Belgium and the Netherlands.
In those countries, people who believe their lives have become intolerable because of severe mental illness can seek permission to receive lethal drugs with a doctor or nurse’s help.
“Every Canadian deserves this right, the right to have the ability to terminate pain that is chronic, incurable,” he told the Canadian Press in September last year.
But in cases of psychiatric illness, critics say, determining whether a person’s condition is chronic and incurable isn’t clear-cut.
“If we provide adequate mental healthcare, the majority of people will recover in a way that provides them with quality of life,” argues Professor Lemmens.
“Yes, some people people will continue to suffer. Yes, some people will likely commit suicide – but at the outset we don’t know who are the people who will not recover. That’s very hard to determine.”