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Doctor-assisted suicide: Key facts on the Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court of Canada on Friday struck down the federal law that criminalizes physician-assisted death, saying it infringes on a person’s right to life, liberty and security as set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Here are a few key things to know about the decision:

  • The government has 12 months to change the section of the Criminal Code. Until then, it is still illegal to seek physician-assisted death. There will be no exemptions.
  • The only defining parameters set by the court are that these changes apply to competent adults who have clearly consented to ending their life and are intolerably suffering from a grievous medical condition. ‘Suffering’ is broadly defined to include both physical and psychological pain.
  •  The decision was unanimous, meaning all nine judges voted in favour of striking down this prohibition. In the past, cases dealing with the right to die have been very divisive and votes were close.
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  •  This is a departure from the earlier, precedent-setting case of Rodriguez v. Canada in 1993, where the court maintained in a 5-4 ruling that the prohibition was lawful. It was Canada’s first constitutional challenge dealing with matters of assisted dying. The court cites the evolution of the law and the broadening of social landscapes as the reason for overturning this previous case.
  •  Justice Beverley McLachlin is the only judge to sit on both this and the Rodriguez case. She wrote the dissenting opinion for Rodriguez, saying the prohibition is indeed unconstitutional.
  •  There is no mention of the word ‘terminal’ throughout the declaration, meaning those who seek physician-assisted death do not necessarily have to be dying, just suffering intolerably from a grievous medical condition.
  •  The judges agreed with the trial judge when saying that designing and administering appropriate safeguards would be capable of protecting vulnerable people from abuse and error. They also accepted that physicians are capable of assessing a patient’s competence level.
  •  “Physician-assisted death” means doctors can administer a means of hastening death, not any other medical professional.