Supreme Court of Canada overturns ban on doctor-assisted suicide

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OTTAWA - The Supreme Court paved the way for Canada to become the 10th jurisdiction in the world to allow some form of physician-assisted suicide this morning when it struck down this country’s blanket ban on the practice.

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This article was published 06/02/2015 (2859 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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OTTAWA – The Supreme Court paved the way for Canada to become the 10th jurisdiction in the world to allow some form of physician-assisted suicide this morning when it struck down this country’s blanket ban on the practice.

In a unanimous, 9-0 judgement, the Court determined a total ban on all forms of assisted suicide is unconstitutional, determining it should be allowed if specific circumstances are met. Those include that only a physician can assist in a suicide, the patient must be a competent adult who clearly consents to have their life end, and who 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 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,” the ruling states.

Submitted photo Steven Fletcher, MP for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley, called the Supreme Court ruling "a decision to be commended."

The court did not define any specific types of illnesses or disabilities that will be affected, but did say the suffering can be either physical or psychological.

The decision is suspended for 12 months to give the federal and provincial governments time to rewrite their laws.

The Criminal Code in Canada currently says nobody can consent to being killed and anyone who assists someone else to end their life is committing an indictable offence. This decision will mean it is no longer illegal for a doctor who aids a competent adult suffering from a grievous illness to end their life.

Manitoba MP Steven Fletcher was expecting the decision which he said would be “momentous.” He said he knew where the court was heading when the federal government acknowledged during the appeal hearing that the ban on all assisted suicide caused people to suffer and caused some to end their lives prematurely.

Reached this morning, Fletcher said it was a decision to be commended.

He noted much of the language in the decision is similar to that contained in his bill.

Those bills were introduced in the House of Commons last March, but in December he had them introduced in the Senate hoping to speed them through faster.

He said if the government doesn’t want this to be an election issue, it will have his bills dealt with before June.

Fletcher has become a public advocate for allowing some form of assisted suicide, drawing on his own experience as a quadriplegic. Last year he introduced two private members’ bills to allow assisted suicide in specific circumstances.

He hopes those bills may form the basis for new federal laws, but also said he hopes and expects Parliament to vigorously debate the issue and introduce amendments as the debate proceeds.

The decision ends a years-long court battle launched by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association arguing on behalf of two women suffering from fatal and debilitating illnesses wanted help to end their lives. Both women have since died, one of an infection in 2012 and the other in 2010, when she travelled to Switzerland where assisted suicide is already allowed.

The original trial judge in B.C. struck down the prohibition on assisted suicide but her decision was overturned on appeal by the B.C. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Canada today agreed with the original trial judge.

It is a departure from their 1993 ruling in the Sue Rodriguez case when the Supreme Court upheld the prohibition on assisted suicide. In today’s ruling, the Court said laws have evolved since 1993, that some aspects of the current case were not considered in the 1993 decision, and that society has also evolved in its treatment of assisted-suicide particularly in that there are other jurisdictions in the world that have allowed it to some extent.

No longer is there “substantial consensus” in Western countries that a blanket ban on assisted suicide is needed to protect vulnerable people.

In the decision the court agreed with the original trial judge that vulnerable people can be protected from being convinced to commit suicide with appropriate safeguards in place. It also found doctors can be relied on to determine a patient’s competence to consent to assisted suicide, including to determine if someone is being coerced to make such a decision.

It ruled a blanket prohibition on assisted suicide actually interferes with the rights of competent individuals who want to help end their own suffering, and that is not necessary to prevent everyone from having assistance to end their life, in order to protect vulnerable people from having their lives ended without their express consent.

Nothing in the decision compels any specific doctor to aid in suicide, nor does it specifically limit the use of assisted suicide to those whose illness or disability prevents them from taking their life without help.

The court decision will take effect in 12 months regardless of what the governments do unless they invoke the notwithstanding clause. Governments are given room to determine specific safeguards or parameters under which assisted suicide can happen, as long as they meet the conditions laid out by the court.

It will give no exemptions to any persons who would seek to end their lives with help from a doctor during the next year.

The court also awarded full costs to the plaintiffs in the original case, starting with the costs of the original trial, and including both the B.C. Supreme Court appeal and the appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. This broad awarding of costs is unique and the Court established it as a precedent for future cases to allow cases of tremendous public importance to be brought when private funding is not possible.

The federal government will bear the weight of most of the bills, but the B.C. government will be responsible for a small share, particularly for its role in the original trial in 2012.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the issue is an emotional one, but would not commit to how the government will respond.

“It has very far reaching implications so we intend to take the time to look at this decision carefully, thoughtfully,” said MacKay.

Reaction to the decision was swift from all sides of the debate, although the governments were slow to provide much more than a promise they were studying the decision and would respond in due time.

The Council for Canadians with Disabilities expressed “profound disappointment” in the decision.

A spokeswoman for the council said she feared for those who felt compelled to make a decision to end their life while they were suffering, instead of being offered the supports and help they need to survive it.

Christian Debray, from the organization Not Dead Yet, said he may have been compelled to make a rash decision when he was suffering, had assisted suicide been available then.

“I’m very disappointed, he said. “This decision endangers the lives of lots of Canadians.”

Lee Carter’s mother Kay Carter was one of the two women whose case was considered in this ruling. Kay Carter was 89 when she travelled to Switzerland to get aide to end her life after she was diagnosed with spinal stenosis.

Lee Carter held a bouquet of flowers and smiled through tears as she applauded the Court’s decision Friday.

“Her journey is complete,” Carter said, nearly crushed by reporters in a media throng in the Supreme Court foyer. “Justice, dignity and compassion were defining qualities of my mother. This ruling now extends those same elements to individuals seeking a humane and dignified death in this country. A huge victory for Canadians and a legacy for Kay.”

Susan Desjardins, chair of the Ottawa chapter of Dying With Dignity, was in tears as she recalled the deaths of friends from cancer and how they suffered.

She said the court has made a decision that will hopefully mean nobody else will have to go through that kind of suffering if they choose not to.

Currently euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, and assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Colombia, and Japan. It is also legal in five U.S. states – Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Friday, February 6, 2015 9:08 AM CST: Adds Fletcher comments.

Updated on Friday, February 6, 2015 10:37 AM CST: Updates with comments from Lee Carter

Updated on Friday, February 6, 2015 10:50 AM CST: Updates with reactions to ruling

Updated on Friday, February 6, 2015 12:06 PM CST: Adds comments from MacKay

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