The nine justices of Canada’s highest court gather in Ottawa Wednesday to hear arguments into whether terminally ill Canadians should be granted the constitutional right to a doctor-assisted death.
Twenty-one years after upholding the law that decrees assisted suicide murder, the Supreme Court of Canada will deliberate once again over whether the ban on doctor-hastened death should be struck down for all Canadians, and whether provinces and territories are constitutionally entitled to enact, as Quebec has done, laws permitting doctors to help patients kill themselves.
The landmark case involves two B.C. women, Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter.
Ms. Carter’s daughter, Lee Carter, and son-in-law Hollis Johnson launched the original lawsuit at the B.C. Supreme Court in 2011 on behalf of Kay Carter, who was suffering from a degenerative spinal condition that left her in chronic pain and unable to walk. Kay Carter died by assisted suicide in a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland.
Grace Pastine, litigation director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which successfully convinced the B.C. Supreme Court in 2012 to strike down the laws against doctor-assisted suicide — a decision the federal government is now appealing — said there has been a seismic change in social and legal thinking since Sue Rodriguez was denied by the Supreme Court the right to a doctor-assisted death in 1993.
In the Rodriguez case, the high court found that the law criminalizing assisted suicide does not infringe on the constitutional right to “life, liberty and security of the person” and that it exists to protect the most vulnerable, namely the frail elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill and the impoverished.
In 1993, the Rodriguez case was decided on a 5-4 split, with now-Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in dissent.
Chief Justice McLachlin is also the only justice still on the Supreme Court bench since the Rodriguez case, notes University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran. “She was in dissent on Rodriguez. It’s not tough to decide where she’s going to land on this one,” Mr. Attaran said. “For the eight other judges it’s a toss up. [But] she’s a strong personality and she has a lot of ability to pull the other judges with her.”
The Harper government has argued Criminal Code provisions prohibiting doctors, or anyone else, from assisting in suicide are “constitutionally valid.”
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association will argue absolute prohibition creates back alleys for assisted dying, and that the best protection for all Canadians is regulation, not criminalization. “We don’t believe the government has any place at the bedside of sick and dying Canadians who have made firm decisions about the amount of suffering they’re willing to endure at the end of life and how they want to spend their last moments,” Ms. Pastine said.