Supreme Court to hear assisted suicide appeal
The Supreme Court of Canada will revisit the issue of physician-assisted suicide Wednesday when it begins hearing an appeal by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
The association, along with two British Columbia families, is arguing that current laws prohibiting assisted suicide violate the rights of terminally ill Canadians to die on their own terms. The plaintiffs are also arguing that existing laws are unfair to terminally ill people who are disabled and do not have the means to take their own lives.
But the federal government is arguing that only a total ban on assisted suicide will protect vulnerable Canadians.
The hearing of arguments is expected to last one day and it could take the Supreme Court five or six months to render a decision.
It’s the latest attempt to strike down the existing Criminal Code provisions, more than 20 years after ALS-stricken Sue Rodriguez lost her fight for assisted suicide before the Supreme Court.
Despite the top court’s 5-4 vote against Rodriguez’s claim, she found a doctor who helped her end her life in 1994.
Since then, two B.C. women -- Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter -- embarked on their own quests for assisted suicide.
In 2012, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide violate the rights of the terminally ill, and gave Parliament a year to rewrite the laws.
But the federal government appealed that ruling and the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the ban on assisted suicide a year ago.
The 2012 ruling, however, granted Gloria Taylor the right to an assisted suicide. The 64-year-old woman, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, later died from an infection, without help from a doctor.
Kay Carter took a different path. The 89-year-old, who was confined to a wheelchair due to spinal stenosis, asked her daughter to take her to Switzerland, where physician-assisted suicide is legal. She died there in 2010.
Her daughter, Lee Carter, told CTV’s Power Play Tuesday that the family had to jump through “a lot of hoops” in Switzerland to fulfill Kay’s wish. She said that should be the case in Canada as well if the Supreme Court allows medically-assisted deaths for terminally ill people.
For those who are suffering, “it’s the ability to know that you can (end your life)” that matters, Carter said.
She also noted that public opinion on physician-assisted suicide has changed since the Sue Rodriguez case. A recent poll from Dying With Dignity Canada suggests that 84 per cent of respondents support the rights of the terminally ill to end their own lives, with help from a doctor.
But Alex Schadenberg, the executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said many red flags have been raised in countries where euthanasia is legal. The issue before the Supreme Court of Canada is “very serious,” he said.
“The question is: in society, should you ever give somebody else the right to cause your death and then what happens if you do?” Schadenberg told CTV’s Power Play.
He said there have been several cases of “great concern” in Switzerland, including one involving a man who got a wrong medical diagnosis and opted for assisted suicide.
His autopsy revealed that he had been wrongly diagnosed, Schadenberg said.
“Can you ever fully protect people?” he asked.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested Tuesday that the issue of physician-assisted suicide is moot.
"These difficult questions around right-to-die and assisted suicide, as you know they were discussed a couple of years back in the Parliament of Canada, and the government of Canada at this time has no intention of reopening that debate," he told reporters at an event in Sept-Iles, Que.
"I understand it is before the courts, it has been before the courts before but obviously we will be watching with great interest whatever the Supreme Court may decide in its deliberations."
Quebec recently became the first Canadian jurisdiction to allow assisted suicide, but that legislation is being challenged in court.
With files from The Canadian Press