The Supreme Court was wrong to uphold ban on assisted suicide: Globe readers

The Globe and Mail

43-year-old Sue Rodriguez is consoled by NDP MP Svend Robinson after leaving a press conference in Victoria Sept. 30, 1993. (Jeff Vinnick/REUTERS)

In 1993, Sue Rodriguez wanted to die with dignity.

The 42-year-old mother from British Columbia suffered from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and her condition was deteriorating quickly. Soon, she would lose the ability to walk, eat and even talk.

Her quest to die at the time of her choosing, once her quality of life was sufficiently diminished, sparked a national debate about physician-assisted suicide as her case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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A narrow majority of five judges disagreed with her and upheld the federal law banning assisted suicide.

This, according to an informal survey of Globe readers, was the worst decision the country’s top court has made in the 30 years of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

To mark that anniversary, Globe and Mail justice reporter Kirk Makin whittled down three decades of cases into 30 important rulings that have shaped rights in our country.

The cases ranged broadly, from search warrants and evidence disclosure to abortion and same-sex equality.

We invited readers to vote on whether each case improved or diminished Canada.

For the most part, readers agreed with the views of the Supreme Court. As one commenter wrote: “I don't know what it means (The Supreme Court *does* reflect the view of the majority of Canadians?) but my vote was with the majority 29/30.”

The two that elicited the strongest negative reactions were Rodriguez v B.C. Attorney General (1993), mentioned above, and R. v Daviault (1994), which was extremely unpopular at the time for reinstating a criminal defence of excessive intoxication. Only 18 per cent of readers supported the former, and 20 per cent the latter.

Perhaps reflecting those strong feelings, both legal issues continue to pop up in the courts. Assisted suicide was debated in a B.C. courtroom again late last year, when Gloria Taylor, 63 and also suffering from ALS, asked the B.C. Supreme Court to grant her the right to let a doctor help her end her own life.

An Ontario Judge ruled last May that a 62-year-old man could use the defence of being too drunk in a sexual assault case. It was the 10th time a judge has supported the defence in the last 15 years - despite a federal law enacted in response to R. v Daviault that expressly forbade the intoxication defence.

Six of the 30 cases broke the 90-per-cent mark of Globe reader support: Hunter et al. v Southam Inc. (1984), which disallowed evidence gathered without a valid search warrant; Reference re: B.C. Motor Vehicle Act (1985), which struck down a B.C. law and established the legitimacy of judicial review under the then-new Charter; R. v Stinchchombe (1991), which compelled the Crown in a criminal trial to disclose all evidence to the defence; Dagenais v CBC (1994), which clarified rules on publication bans at trial; Eldridge v B.C. Attorney General (1997), which required the province to provide sign language services for deaf people; and M. v H. (1999), which improved equal rights for same-sex couples.

The Charter Showdown was one of our most viewed interactive features of the week, and proved particularly popular on Facebook. (It’s the third most-shared Globe article of the month so far.) In fact, most of our Charter stories this week have been quite popular with readers - a testament, perhaps, to the power of that important document.

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