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Canada’s Supreme Court Reverses Its Earlier Ruling on Assisted Suicide

Canadian Dying with Dignity official Linda Jarrett


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John Burger - published on 02/06/15

Panel orders Canadian government to allow procedure within one year.

The Supreme Court of Canada is naïve to think that assisted suicide will not be abused, when abuse already occurs, said the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, in response to Friday’s ruling permitting assisted suicide throughout Canada.

The court unanimously struck down a ban on doctor-assisted suicide for mentally competent patients with terminal illnesses, declaring that how people choose to confront such conditions is "critical to their dignity and autonomy."

Canada-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition cited the experience that the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland have had with assisted suicide, saying, "Unless Canada’s Parliament resists this same direction, this will be the same experience in Canada."

The coalition explained:

Recently, a depressed healthy man who was recently retired, but alone and lonely, died by euthanasia in the Netherlands. In Belgium, a healthy depressed woman died from euthanasia after experiencing the break-up of a long-term relationship. In Switzerland, a man died by assisted suicide after receiving a wrong diagnosis.

Giving doctors the right to cause the death of their patients will never be safe and no amount of “so-called safeguards” will protect those who live with depression or abuse. There will always be people who will abuse the power to cause death and there will always be more reasons to cause death. 

… Depression is common for people with significant health conditions. Assisted suicide is an abandonment of people who live with depression who require support and proper care.

The Supreme Court’s decision reverses its own decision two decades ago and gives Parliament a year to draft new legislation that recognizes the right of consenting adults who are enduring intolerable suffering to seek medical help ending their lives. The current ban on doctor-assisted suicide stands until then.

The judgment said the ban infringes on the life, liberty and security of individuals under Canada’s constitution. It had been illegal in Canada to counsel, aid or abet a suicide, an offense carrying a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

"The law allows people in this situation to request palliative sedation, refuse artificial nutrition and hydration, or request the removal of life-sustaining medical equipment, but denies the right to request a physician’s assistance in dying," the ruling noted.

Canadian law defines assisted suicide as "providing another with the knowledge or means to intentionally end his or her own life."

Some in the disabled community, are disappointed in the decision.

"Those of us who have been working in disability rights for many years were deeply disappointed and discouraged by the… decision," said Amy Hasbrouck, from Not Dead Yet Canada, in an email to Aleteia. "Twenty years ago, the Supreme Court recognized that discrimination caused great risk with disabilities…. Now, the Supreme Court has decided that the risk is not important enough to protect people."

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition also touched on the danger the decision poses to the disabled: "Assisted suicide creates new paths of abuse for elders, people with disabilities and other socially devalued people," its statement said. "The scourge of elder abuse in our culture continues to grow."

Hasbrouck said Canada will have to now ask "some very important and profound questions: how do we reconcile having a suicide prevention policy at the same time as providing assistance to suicide? How can we justify killing people who are in pain when we do not provide adequate pain services? How can we justify killing people whose requests to die arise from intolerable living conditions caused by discriminatory public policy? Does Canada want to visit the flaws in its public policies on its citizens who are made by vulnerable my those policies? Those important questions, that were not resolved during the earlier debate, must now be answered in order to develop a system that will harm The fewest people."

For their part, Canada’s Catholic bishops called on legislators to interpret the court’s ruling narrowly and urged Catholics to work to restore a culture of life.

"Catholics are called by their faith to assist all those in need, particularly the poor, the suffering and the dying. Comforting the dying and accompanying them in love and solidarity has been considered by the Church since its beginning a principal expression of Christian mercy," said Archbishop Paul-André Durocher of Gatineau, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement. "Helping someone commit suicide, however, is neither an act of justice or mercy, nor is it part of palliative care."

"The bishops of our country invite Canadians, especially Catholics, to do all they can to bring comfort and support for all those who are dying and for their loved ones, so that no one, because of loneliness, vulnerability, loss of autonomy, or fear of pain and suffering, feels they have no choice but to commit suicide," Archbishop Durocher continued. "The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops will continue to promote palliative and home care, and to encourage all the faithful to work for the betterment of the elderly, the disabled, the ill, and those who are socially isolated.

"My brother bishops and I entreat governments and courts to interpret today’s judgment in its narrowest terms, resisting any calls to go beyond this to so-called acts of ‘mercy killing’ and euthanasia," he added. "We again call on provincial and territorial governments to ensure good-quality palliative care in all their jurisdictions. We also urge governments and professional associations to implement policies and guidelines which ensure respect for the freedom of conscience of all health-care workers as well as administrators who will not and cannot accept suicide as a medical solution to pain and suffering."

Asked if the bishops’ conference will try to challenge the decision or lobby Parliament, conference spokesman René Laprise said the bishops and the conference will continue using "their usual means to promote the approaches listed in Durocher’s statement, including: pastoral letters and homilies; meetings with clergy, faithful, and Members of Parliament as well as provincial / territorial governments, and with health-care organizations and other social as well as religious organizations; letters to governments and professional associations; personal contacts with politicians as well as with health care professionals."

Hugh Scher, legal counsel for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said, "We will certainly be talking with legislators and thoroughly be examining the decision to ensure that the safety and security of Canadians remains of paramount concern."

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Colombia, Japan and in the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana. The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg allow doctors, under strict conditions, to euthanize patients whose medical conditions have been judged hopeless and who are in great pain.

Friday’s decision reverses a Canadian Supreme Court ruling in 1993. At the time, the justices were primarily concerned that vulnerable people could not be properly protected under physician-assisted suicide.

The top court said Friday that doctors are capable of assessing the competence of patients to consent, and found there is no evidence that the elderly or people with disabilities are vulnerable to being talked into doctor-assisted dying.

The pressure will now be on Parliament to act in an election year, as the court says no exemptions may be granted for those seeking to end their lives during the 12-month suspension of the judgment.

Friday’s decision was spurred by the families of two British Columbia women, who have since died.

Gloria Taylor, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological illness. Taylor had won a constitutional exemption at a lower court for a medically assisted death in 2012, but that decision was overturned in subsequent appeals. She died of an infection later the same year.

Kay Carter was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal cord condition. At age 89, Carter travelled to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is allowed.

"Justice, dignity and compassion were the defining qualities of my mother," Kay’s daughter, Lee, told reporters after the decision came down. "We just felt that it was a fundamental right for Canadians that they should have this choice."

Grace Pastine, litigation director for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which assisted the families in pursuing their cases, called it a victory for Canada.

"For seriously and incurably ill Canadians, the brave people who worked side by side with us for so many years on this case — this decision will mean everything to them," Pastine said.

Opponents of assisted suicide denounced the ruling.

"Life is too precious to allow a doctor to kill," said Dr. Charles McVety, president of the Institute for Canadian Values. "It is sad to think that people suffering will now have to contend with the pressure of making a decision on ending their life, instead of fighting to continue."

It has been more than 20 years since the case of another patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Sue Rodriguez, gripped Canada as she fought for the right to assisted suicide. She lost her appeal but took her own life with the help of an anonymous doctor in 1994, at the age of 44.

The US Supreme Court in 1997 voted unanimously that the State of Washington’s ban on physician assisted-suicide did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause by denying competent terminally ill adults the liberty to choose death over life.

"Analyzing the guarantees of the Due Process Clause, the Court focused on two primary aspects: the protection of our nation’s objective fundamental, historically rooted, rights and liberties; and the cautious definition of what constitutes a due process liberty interest," the website summarized. "The Court held that the right to assisted suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause since its practice has been, and continues to be, offensive to our national traditions and practices. Moreover, employing a rationality test, the Court held that Washington’s ban was rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in protecting medical ethics, shielding disabled and terminally ill people from prejudice which might encourage them to end their lives, and, above all, the preservation of human life."

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a group of doctors and terminally ill patients filed a lawsuit in New York’s State Supreme Court, asking the court to rule that physician-assisted suicide is legal and not covered by the state’s prohibition of aiding people to take their own lives, according to the New York Times. Several other states, including New York, Connecticut, and California, are continuing to attempt legislative changes to permit the practice.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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