In an unusual 9-0 decision, especially considering the contentious social issue at stake, the Supreme Court of Canada opened the doors to doctor assisted death today. Canadians, according to the court, have the right to seek out a doctor’s help to let them die when facing clearly defined criteria, and they’ve given a year to the federal and provincial governments to sort out the legal implications.
“The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes on the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” said the justices in their decision. “The object of the prohibition is not, broadly, to preserve life whatever the circumstances, but more specifically to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness. Since a total ban on assisted suicide clearly helps achieve this object, individuals’ rights are not deprived arbitrarily. However, the prohibition catches people outside the class of protected persons. It follows that the limitation on their rights is in at least some cases not connected to the objective and that the prohibition is thus overboard. It is unnecessary to decide whether the prohibition also violates the principle against gross disproportionality.”
You can read the full decision from the Supreme Court here.
In less legalese, the court decided that the ban on doctor assisted dying violated Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says that all Canadians have the right to life, liberty and security of the person. In the Supreme Court’s interpretation, that doesn’t mean that the life is to be protected at all cost, but rather that people should have the right to decide when that life should, albeit under very specific circumstances, end:
- The person must be a competent adult would clearly consents to the termination of life;
- The person must have a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition, which includes an illness, disease or disability;
- The medical condition must cause “endless suffering” that is intolerable to the person, although that suffering can be physical or psychological
The decision shows that the Supreme Court’s thoughts are in line with most Canadians. A poll conducted last fall when the case was being heard by the justices showed that 84 per cent of people surveyed believed that people had the right to die with dignity, with support being strongest in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, the province from which the two cases in today’s decision originated.
The case was brought to the court by two B.C. women, Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter, who have since passed away. Taylor and Carter both wanted the right to take their own lives; Taylor had a neurodegenerative disease and died of an infection, while Carter had spinal stenosis and travelled to Switzerland in 2012 to end her life, as doctor assisted death was already allowed there and open to people from other countries. The last major case taken by the Supreme Court on the issue was that of Sue Rodriguz who had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1993. The court then voted 5-4 to hold up the law banning doctor assisted death.
So how has the government reacted? “This is a sensitive issue for many Canadians, with deeply held beliefs on both sides,” said Justice Minister Peter MacKay in an official statement. “We will study the decision and ensure all perspectives on this difficult issue are heard.”
The Conservative government is between a rock and a hard place again, as the Supreme Court, including all the justices appointed by Stephen Harper, have sided with social liberalism. The Conservatives are generally opposed to doctor-assisted death, although Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia MP Stephen Fletcher has tried before to open the door to it legislatively through a private members bill.
The prime minister was not available for comment, but when he last spoke on the matter in October, for social conservatives, the answer sounded a lot like Harper’s reaction to discussing abortion law. “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 said at an event in Sept-Iles, Que.
Amongst the opposition parties, there was a more welcoming reaction. While speaking in Calgary, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said that he agreed with the decision, and hopes that a robust and respectful debate comes from it. “This is an issue that personally and deeply touches Canadians and our lives in a way that many public issues sometimes don’t,” Trudeau said. “Like many of us, I sat beside my father’s bed for weeks while he faded. It didn’t come to the point of having to make this decision, but I very well understand the challenges that people are facing.”
Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May also agreed with the ruling. “Today’s decision to respect the wishes of Canadians who live in unimaginable agony was a relief to patients and their families,” she said. “The Supreme Court affirmed that Canadians must be free to make important decisions about what kind of end-of-life care they receive. Parliament should take immediate action to legislate new rules that respect the Supreme Court’s ruling.”
If Canadian governments don’t move on creating laws and regulations within the one year deadline, then, like abortion, there will be no laws governing doctor assisted death and it will be left up to medical professional organizations and doctors to govern the administration of it themselves.