Top court to hear doctors' end-of-life appeal
Published Thursday, May 17, 2012 7:15PM EDT
The Supreme Court of Canada decided Thursday to hear an appeal by doctors over who has the final authority to end a comatose patient's life.
The court's ruling on the controversial case involving a Toronto man could clear up a legal grey area that fails to clarify whether physicians or a patient's family have the final say on when to pull the plug.
In the quick ruling on a motion to quash, the justices refused to throw out the case, saying instead it will get a full hearing later this year.
"It's something that really isn't clear in Canada," CTV's Mercedes Stephenson said from Ottawa Thursday.
Five months after electrical engineer Hassan Rasouli brought his family to Canada from Iran in 2010, he had routine surgery for a benign brain tumour. Bacterial meningitis infected his brain leaving him unresponsive.
Within weeks, the surgeon wanted the family to take Rasouli off a ventilator that was keeping him alive, but his wife, a doctor in her native Iran, thought it was too soon.
"They wanted to withdraw his life support because they believed there was simply no chance," Stephenson told CTV News Channel.
"Doctors didn't think there was any hope of him ever regaining consciousness or being able to live again."
The story changed in January 2011 when Rasouli's family thought he started showing signs of improvement, even though his diagnosis maintained he was in a persistent vegetative state.
In Ontario, cases such as Rasouli's where there is no agreement are supposed to be referred to an expert tribunal called the Consent and Capacity Board.
Doctors at Sunnybrook Hospital refused to do that and instead took the case to the Ontario Superior Court in February 2011.
The court rejected the doctors' arguments that they didn't need consent to remove life support and ruled that Rasouli's case had to be referred to the CCB.
The doctors' case was rejected again by the Ontario Court of Appeal in June 2011. It was then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In an interesting twist, Rasouli is now considered to be "responsive" and is believed to be "minimally conscious," Stephenson said.
That means the court ruling would no longer apply specifically to Rasouli and his ventilator won't be removed regardless of the outcome, she said.
Stephenson said the case raises the question as to how much doctors actually know when they make a decision to withdraw life support.
The Supreme Court arrived at Thursday's decision despite an appeal on Rasouli's behalf to have the court quash the doctors' request on the grounds it was now moot.