Supreme court gives Parliament 4-month extension on doctor-assisted dying law
Josh Dehaas, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, January 15, 2016 3:14PM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 15, 2016 9:31PM EST
Adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering will have to wait up to four months longer for doctor-assisted death legislation, although exemptions can now be sought from provincial courts, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.
The country’s top court decided Friday, in a 5-4 decision, to grant a four-month extension to the federal government, allowing it more time to come up with a law.
The court did not grant the full six months the Crown had requested, but said four months was justified due to the interruption from last year’s federal election.
The court ruled unanimously last February that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows Canadians the right to physician-assisted dying, but it allowed Ottawa and the provinces one year to respond with legislation.
Earlier this week, Crown Lawyer Robert Frater asked for a six-month extension, noting “that the issues are so enormous and so complex.”
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and individuals who spearheaded the case, known as Lee Carter et al. v. Attorney General of Canada et al., argued the requested six-month extension would be a setback for those who are suffering.
However, B.C.C.L.A. lawyer Sheila Tucker said Friday that the organization “couldn’t be happier,” because the court ruled that people can seek exemptions to the Criminal Code during the extension.
“The fact that the court (will allow) people to come and make individual applications and actually get some relief for their suffering, is wonderful,” Tucker said.
Toronto lawyer Ari Goldkind told CTV News Channel that it was as a “compromise decision,” because the it gives the government “four more months to get (their ducks in a row)” but at the same time “people who are suffering” during the four-month extension will be able to go a judge and get approval to end their lives.
Wanda Morris, an advocate for Dying with Dignity, told CTV News Channel immediately after the ruling the she has “always had a lot of sympathy with the federal government’s position” that they need more time,” but was nonetheless disappointed.
“I’m just gutted for those individuals … waiting right now wanting to have the certainty, the peace of mind that they will soon have the choice to have a peaceful death,” Morris said.
Morris said her advocacy group is hoping for legislation that will include “advance consent,” where someone with dementia, for example, could agree to assisted-dying before they become “completely bed-ridden and unable to recognize family.”
Dr. Paul Saba, President of the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice, said after ruling that it is “too premature for us here in Canada to go ahead with assisted suicide or euthanasia.”
Dr. Saba said his group will continue to fight doctor-assisted dying in his home province of Quebec, which has passed legislation to allow it.
The Supreme Court exempted Quebec in Friday’s decision from the four-month extension, meaning those who go ahead with the process will not face criminal charges.
Dr. Saba said that he does not believe doctor-assisted dying is medical treatment, that there are risks doctors will diagnose diseases as fatal when they are not, and that real problem is a lack of palliative care.
Disability rights advocate Amy Hasbrouck, from a Quebec group called Not Dead Yet, told CTV News Channel that she too was disappointed by the ruling.
“The Supreme Court (in its 2015 decision) said it wanted to have a well-regulated scheme to protect people who needed to be protected,” Hasbrouck said. “To develop such a law is going to take more time than just a few months.”
“Our goal is to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide by the various problems, like the lack of palliative care,” she added.
The Conservative government failed to act on last year’s Supreme Court ruling and the Liberal government’s parliamentary committee on the issue will meet Monday for the first time.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary, Adam Vaughan, told CTV Power Play Friday that the Liberals would have liked more time but “respect the court’s decision.” The government is pleased that the court will allow individuals to seek exemptions, he said.
Vaughan said his goal is to “get the right law in place so that suffering ends but that vulnerable populations are protected,” adding that “better palliative care is part of the solution.”
NDP MP Murray Rankin, who is also on the committee, said that four months is reasonable. “It does keep our feet to the fire but that’s appropriate,” said the MP from Victoria, B.C.
“What I do like about this case today is that it’s giving individuals … the ability to go to a court in their province and ask for the relief every Canadian has a right to under the charter,” Rankin added.
Edmonton Conservative MP Michael Cooper, however, said the committee does not have enough time.
“I am concerned that the committee will be able to consult as broadly as necessary, given the complexity of this matter, given the diverse range of views there are on this matter,” he said.
Friday’s decision was supported by Justices Abella, Karakatsanis, Wagner, Gascon and Cote. It was opposed by Justices Cromwell, Moldaver, Brown and Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
"While we agree that a four month extension is justified, we would not exempt Quebec from that extension or provide for individual exemptions," the dissenting judges wrote.
The decision was initiated by two B.C. women, Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter, who both had terminal illnesses and wanted a physician to assist them with death.
Taylor, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease, died of a severe infection in a B.C. hospital in 2012 at the age of 64.
Carter, who had spinal stenosis, ended her life in 2010 at the age of 89, by drinking a toxic dose of sodium pentobarbital in Switzerland, where physician-assisted dying was already legal.
With files from The Canadian Press