Canada’s Supreme Court Declares Right to Assisted Suicide

EspañolThe Canadian Supreme Court has struck down a 21-year-old ban on assisted suicide. In its place, the justices have ordered the national Parliament to enact legislation that allows patients with terminal illnesses greater control over how they choose to die.

The court, in a unanimous decision on Friday, February 6, said the ban infringed on key provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect “the right to life, liberty, and security.” To allow Parliament the next year to draft the appropriate legislation, the justices suspended the effect of their decision for 12 months.

“For seriously and incurably ill Canadians, the brave people who worked side by side with us for so many years on this case — this decision will mean everything to them,” said Grace Pastine, the litigation director for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

The decision, which overturns the ban established in Canada’s Criminal Code, set forth specific conditions in which assisted suicide should be allowed: “physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”

The court made clear in their judgement — which was not signed by any one judge, signifying strong consensus — that the ban on assisted suicide denied people “the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty.”

The historical ruling marks the reversal of the 1993 landmark case of Sue Rodriguez, where the court stated that vulnerable persons could not be properly protected under physician-assisted suicide. At that time, the court cited prohibitions on assisted suicide as “the norm among Western democracies,” but now says the legislative landscape around the world has changed since then. At this point, assisted suicide has been legal in several countries, including Colombia, Belgium, the Netherlands, as well as several US states.

Seeking the Right to Die

Two women from British Columbia, Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor, spurred the landmark case, which was sponsored by the BC Civil Liberties Association. Both women suffered from debilitating conditions that impeded them from carrying out daily activities.

According to the decision, Taylor said that she did “not want to die slowly, piece by piece” or “wracked with pain,” while Carter “informed her family that she did not wish to live out her life as an ‘ironing board, lying flat in bed.'”

Carter’s daughter Lee Carter called the ruling “a huge victory for Canadians and a legacy for Kay.”

Both women died prior to the ruling. Taylor, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, died of an infection. Carter was 89 and suffering from a condition that “results in the progressive compression of the spinal cord.” She traveled to Switzerland, escorted by her family, where physician-assisted suicide is allowed.

Not without Dissent

Andrea Mrozek, executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC), was swift in her rebuke: “Obviously it is an irony of the highest order that apparently the Supreme Court believes we need access to assisted death in order to secure our right to life. As for suffering — we have every evidence that suffering can be alleviated at the end of life with good palliative care.

The IMFC press release asserts that the “suicide creep” will be accompanied by a loosening of adherence to the standards that exist on paper. They cite the case of Belgium, where up to 32 percent of recent deaths “happened without the express request of the patient.”

“This sends a strong signal to all Canadians,” Mrozek says, “that certain lives are not worthy living. It’s a dangerous precedent. Finally, since safeguards have not been effective in other countries, we have no reason to believe they will work here.”

Read the debate, “Right to Die: Should Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Be Legal?,” published in the wake of the death of Brittany Maynard.

Fergus Hodgson contributed to this article.

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