In Conversation with Tammy Pham – Founder and Former Co-President, Dying With Dignity Canada (U of Ottawa)

by | February 6, 2018


By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Tammy Pham is the Founder and Former Co-President of Dying With Dignity Canada club at the University of Ottawa. Here she provides some insight into medically assisted death or assisted death. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved with the physician-assisted suicide movement, the assisted suicide movement?

Tammy Pham: I was in the middle of my undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa. In personal life, at the same time, my grandmothers from both sides had to go to a nursing home for different reasons.

So, all of a sudden my family had this transition of suddenly having to be caregivers. We felt the impact of caregiver burden. It made us think about what we would want if we were in that same or similar situations.

From there, I started researching online about assisted suicide.  I stumbled upon the Dying With Dignity Canada website. I went to one of the first meetings in Ottawa when they started off as a chapter. I started attending more meetings.

The chapter head, Susan Desjardin, reached out to me. She told me that they wanted to reach out to more students, more people in my age group. The demographics of those DWDC meetings are older. I started a club at the University of Ottawa. I did that for 3 years. Then I moved to Winnipeg.

Jacobsen: With regards to Dying with Dignity Canada, what are some of the important initiatives ongoing?

Pham: What I am aware of right now is that they’re doing a lot of work to expand the assisted dying law to allow for some minors, mental conditions, and also clarifying the “reasonably foreseeable” death clause of that, those are the main ones that I have been following.

Jacobsen: I have heard or read some discussion about the reasonably foreseeable portion. It raises questions in terms of the amorphous, vague definition of the phrase for some people, especially in terms of interpretation. Does that come up as an issue for some that you are more aware of than me?

Pham: Within the organization, in my discussions and with the Ottawa chapter, it seems like the phrase “reasonably foreseeable death” was put into the legal perspective rather than the medical perspective. But in the medical community, there is no such phrase as “reasonably foreseeable death.” There is concern that the clause does not include conditions such as ALS, which were the cases that started this whole movement to decriminalize it.

Jacobsen: How can people become active participants in the movement?

Pham: My perspective is very much from a student perspective. For me, it is talking to your parents and grandparents about it. it may not be something that affects you directly. You perceive yourself as young and healthy. It is good to get that discussion going to know what your parents might want at that stage and also what you might want. The second thing would be what I did, start a club at your university. That’s what I did at the University of Ottawa. Get together and discuss these difficult topics in a safe space. That got enough attention that when I left somebody was able to take over my role.

Jacobsen: Sometimes, there will be pushback. |By analogy, I think of reproductive health rights in North America. People will protest with signs, even obstructing women going to, for instance, abortion clinics. I draw that to the case of assisted suicide, assisted death. Who tends to be those that pushback in some way, whether on campus, as in your case, or in general public spaces?

Pham: What I have noticed is often the pushback comes from certain sects of the disability rights activists, which I definitely understand, to a certain extent. There is an argument that we live in an ableist society, so some of the concepts like assisted dying as a right for Canadians are ableist. I can see the perspective, but, at the same time, I don’t think the right to assisted dying and ableism are so directly linked or quite black and white as that. I think it is more complex. We must still respect right to autonomy and choice. 

I think the other pushback comes from certain religious groups. That was the case when I was in Ottawa. That was certainly the case when I was at the Elisabeth Bruyère Palliative Care Hospital. It was originally founded as a religiously affiliated hospital. When I moved to Winnipeg, there have been many stories about St. Boniface Hospital, where they had voted to allow assisted dying on hospital grounds. But then the parent organization added some new members to the council to stack the revote, that changed the votes in the end.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts?

Pham: I would like to add a little about my background. My dad is passionately Catholic and I come from a Vietnamese family. So growing up in this environment it was really taboo to talk about death. So I understand the difficulties in talking to your friends and family about this topic but it has helped me create stronger relationships within my family.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Tammy.

Image Credit: Tammy Pham.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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