Canada’s Assisted Suicide Ban Struck Down in Court

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 15, 2012   |   3:51PM   |   Vancouver, BC

The British Columbia Supreme Court has issued an opinion declaring the law in Canada against assisted suicides unconstitutional. Justice Lynn Smith issued a 395-page ruling Friday calling the law discriminatory in the case of Gloria Taylor, a British Columbia woman with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Taylor was one of five plaintiff’s seeking to strike the law and Judge Smith agree with her saying that, because suicide itself is not illegal, assisted suicides should not be illegal either. Judge Smith said the law contravenes Section 15 of the Charter, which guarantees equality, because it denies the ability to disabled people to kill themselves in the same way an able-bodied person could.

“The impact of that distinction is felt particularly acutely by persons such as Ms. Taylor, who are grievously and irremediably ill, physically disabled or soon to become so, mentally competent and who wish to have some control over their circumstances at the end of their lives,” Smith wrote in the decision. “The distinction is discriminatory … because it perpetuates disadvantage.”

Smith, ironically, also claimed the law violated the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Section 7 of the Charter by claiming the assisted suicide ban could prompt people to take their lives while they’re physically able to do so.

Will Johnston of Euthanasia Prevention Coalition immediately critiqued the ruling and the group had sided with federal and provincial governments in opposing the case to strike the law. He urged Canadian officials to appeal the decision to the BC Court of Appeal and to seek an order stopping the decision from taking effect and nullifying the law until that appeal is heard.

“Most elder abuse is hidden from view – and if we can’t detect the abuse now, how are we going to do it when the stakes are raised? I have seen how easily influenced older people can be, and how inadequate are our national strategies against suicide. The present decision, which should be immediately appealed and corrected, is a huge step backwards, a blow to public safety, and would force changes in public policy which would do more harm than good,” he explained.

He added: “Today’s decision would point Canada towards the Oregon assisted suicide regime, which has become notorious for its erosion of medical standards and abuse of psychiatry to rubber-stamp suicide requests. The wish to avoid Oregon’s mistakes has been reflected in over 100 rejections of assisted suicide by legislatures in North America and by medical associations around the world.”

According to the CBC, “Donnaree Nygard, the lawyer for the attorney general of Canada, argued the good of alleviating suffering is outweighed by the probability of wrongful death. She said those who are particularly vulnerable are the elderly, disabled, and people who may worry about being a “burden to society” and safeguards are not effectively protecting vulnerable people in jurisdictions where assisted suicide is already allowed.”

The Federal Parliament of Canada recently considered legalization of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in a bill that came before the House in 2010. Bill C-384 was overwhelmingly defeated based upon concerns related to the prospect of the abuse of seniors, people with disabilities, the lack of an effective national suicide prevention strategy, and the lack of access to good palliative care in Canada.

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition Executive Director Alex Schadenberg also responded: “Parliament’s overwhelming defeat of Bill C-384 months ago reflects that there has not been a change in social consensus since the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in the case of Rodriguez v. AG BC in 1993. Today’s court decision is fundamentally at odds with the will of Parliament as expressed just months ago and is fundamentally anti-democratic.”

Schadenberg says “The fact is that legalizing assisted suicide threatens people with disabilities and other vulnerable people who are already devalued by society. Negative attitudes and perceptions of people with disabilities will create subtle pressure that they “choose” assisted suicide. But since when was this issue ever about choice?”

“It is not based on autonomy because assisted suicide requires the direct and intentional involvement of another person. It is not simply another choice, it is really about how society would directly and intentionally cause the death of people,” he says.

During the case, Justice Smith invited the pro-euthanasia group to join the B.C. Civil Liberties Association’s case as an intervener.