OTTAWA – Canada’s high court has struck down the country’s laws against physician-assisted suicide.
That means it will no longer be against the law for a doctor to help someone who is ill and suffering to end their life – but the ban won’t be lifted for another year.
And it can only be done under several conditions.
“People who are grievously and irremediably ill cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life, often by violent and dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes,” the decision says.
“The choice is cruel.”
The court makes no mention of terminal illness in its ruling.
“We’re ecstatic, we’re excited,” said Lee Carter, one of the plaintiffs in the case brought forward on behalf of her mother, Kay Carter, who had a neurodegenerative disease.
“It’s been an emotional day. It’s been a long time coming, and we’re thrilled for ourselves and also for Canadians.”
In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Criminal Code laws prohibiting physician-assisted death infringes Section 7 of the Charter, which states that everyone has right to life, liberty and security of the person.
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“Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effects of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable,” reads the decision, written anonymously to underscore its importance.
“The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.”
The court laid out several specific conditions for physician-assisted death:
– The person must be a competent adult would clearly consents to the termination of life;
– The person must have a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition, which includes an illness, disease or disability;
– The medical condition must cause “endless suffering” that is intolerable to the person, although that suffering can be physical or psychological.
The court did not lay out guidelines for the process in determining these conditions, nor comment about Parliament’s role in the matter.
In a statement, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the government is reviewing the decision.
“This is a sensitive issue for many Canadians, with deeply held beliefs on both sides. We will study the decision and ensure all perspectives on this difficult issue are heard,” he said.
READ MORE: The debate over physician-assisted suicide
The government doesn’t have to respond but the two sections of the Criminal Code which prevent people from consenting to their own deaths or allow others to aid in their suicide become null in 12 months.
‘People will have a choice’
Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who became quadriplegic after a car accident almost 20 years ago, said he felt relief upon hearing the decision.
“This is a momentous decision that will be of international interest, that will ensure that people will have choice,” he said.
“And that will bring a lot of comfort to people who are in potentially dire situations, that they’re not doomed to have a dreadful death. That there is another option.”
Fletcher has two bills before Parliament that seek to set out guidelines for the practice, and another to create a commission that monitors the law.
He said it’s conceivable the federal government will leave the legislating up to the provinces, but continue to ensure the vulnerable are protected.
“Where I think the federal role is, is to ensure that there isn’t a situation where people are being knocked off by their auto mechanic because they have a bad hair day,” he said.
Watch: Life, Death and the Law
The Canadian Medical Association, which sets the guidelines for 80,000 doctors across the country, has already spent the past year and a half preparing for the decision in event that the law was struck down.
CMA President Chris Simpson told Global News he hoped the association would be consulted in drafting new legislation.
The court’s decision also confirmed that regulation over health care can be handled by both the provincial and federal government. Last year, Quebec passed its own medical aid in dying law.
The Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Canadian Association for Community Living said they were “profoundly disappointed” by the ruling and extremely concerned about its implications.
“An immensely important discussion must now begin with Canadians and politicians at all levels, with civil society, health professions and the legal community,” the groups said in a statement.
“We start from the premise that the lives of Canadians with disabilities are worthy of the utmost respect. Such respect, regrettably, cannot be taken for granted.”
Josh Paterson, a lawyer with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, said Parliament should respect the letter and the spirit of Friday’s decision.
“Our ideal situation is that this be regulated, like other forms of palliative care, regulated by the medical professions according to their doctrines of informed consent, just as other kinds of medical services are,” he said.
“We don’t have legislation at the federal or provincial level saying which kind of palliative services you can offer. These things are regulated by medical professions.”
It’s not the first time the Supreme Court has looked into the issue of assisted suicide. In 1993, the top court reviewed the case of Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and wanted to end her own life. In a split decision, the court upheld the law.
In the new ruling, the court found the breadth of the Charter has changed since the early 1990s. It also said the social landscape has evolved, because assisted dying is permitted in other places such as Belgium, Switzerland, and Oregon.
Friday’s case was originally brought forward by Carter and Kay Taylor, who have both since died, who wished to end their illnesses with medical help.
The court also put the federal government on the hook for $1 million in legal costs.
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