BC Supreme Court Strikes Ban on Assisted Death

Gloria Taylor, photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Gloria Taylor, photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Last Friday, the British Columbia Supreme Court issued a ruling in Carter v. Canada, a landmark court case which took a hard look at Canada’s ban on medically-assisted death and found it wanting. The BC Supreme Court struck down the ban as unconstitutional and gave Parliament one year to draft new legislation regarding assisted death.

While Parliament works on new legislation, the Court granted plaintiff Gloria Taylor, who has ALS, a constitutional exemption to request assistance in dying assuming certain conditions are met. According to the Farewell Foundation’s blog, the conditions mentioned in the ruling include “requirements that she make a written request, be terminally ill and near death, of sound mind, and fully informed of treatment options such as palliative care.” These conditions are quite similar to the safeguards in the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts.

Since the ruling, there’s been a barrage of articles about the ruling and no shortage of opinion pieces. Some of the more astute op-eds summarize the sentiment of the BC Supreme Court ruling: not all assisted death cases are the same and a blanket ban isn’t allowing enough options for people facing the end of their lives.

Matt Gurney of the National Post explained it’s reasonable opponents’ concerns should be considered when forming legislation, and the laws need to be carefully-crafted to protect all citizens. “What is not reasonable is the position taken by opponents…who argue that people like Gloria Taylor tough it out and suffer because building a legal framework to end their life would be too complicated and fraught with tricky ethical questions.”

A similar sentiment could be found in an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen:

Until now, Canada’s Criminal Code provision against assisted suicide has stood as a guarantee that those bad things would not happen. If all assisted suicide is illegal, then we don’t have to worry about it being misapplied.

The new BC judgment wisely recognizes that this is a false choice. It is possible to show compassion for those who can freely consent to end their own extreme suffering, without sliding down a slippery slope into a brutal dystopia.

Even with the sound logic behind the BC Supreme Court ruling, it’s likely to be appealed and brought before the Canadian Supreme Court. If so, this wouldn’t be the first time the nation’s superior court took up the issue. In 1993, Sue Rodriguez, who was also dying of ALS, petitioned to be allowed to ask for a physician to help her achieve a peaceful death. The Canadian Supreme Court denied her request in a close 5-4 decision.

Since the 1993 ruling much has changed. The debate about assisted death has continued throughout the world. Oregon voters twice approved the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (1994 and 1997 when the legislature asked voters if they really meant it…they did and by an even wider margin than in 1994). The Oregon law was then tested at every legislative and legal level culminating in a US Supreme Court ruling which upheld the law in 2006. This model legislation was then put before Washington voters in 2008, and 59% approved the measure.

With nearly 15 years of data showing these laws work the way they’re intended and no evidence of a slippery slope for vulnerable individuals, support for these laws has been growing faster.  At the end of last year, an expert panel commissioned by the Royal Society of Canada called for a “permissive yet carefully regulated and monitored system for assisted death.” (full report available online) This year, the Vermont legislature came close to passing a Death with Dignity law, and Massachusetts voters will likely have the opportunity to decide about Death with Dignity on their ballot this November.

This BC Supreme Court ruling right on the heels of the Royal Society of Canada in-depth report opens up an opportunity for Canadian lawmakers to craft a safeguarded law for physician-assisted death. Such a law would give Canadians a full range of end-of-life options when faced with a terminal illness, and peace of mind to all citizens knowing the option would be available.

As Gloria Taylor said shortly after the ruling, “I am deeply grateful to have the comfort of knowing that I’ll have a choice at the end of my life. This is a blessing for me, and other seriously and incurably ill individuals. This decision allows me to approach my death in the same way I have tried to live my life—with dignity, independence, and grace.”

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

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