Gloria Taylor, a British Colombia woman who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, doesn’t want to die now. But she wants the right to die so that she can have peace of mind, and live without the terror of being unable to escape from future unspeakable pain and suffering.
The B.C. Supreme Court is correct to recognize that right and strike down Canada’s Criminal Code provision against physician-assisted suicide. Canadians with incurable diseases who are in excruciating pain should not have to suffer unnecessarily.
Since suicide is not illegal, physically disabled people such as Ms. Taylor, who is 64 and in a wheelchair and requires a feeding tube, should also be able to control the circumstances at the end of their lives, and have access to physician-assisted death. To deny them this is to violate their equality rights under the Charter and their right to life, liberty and security, notes the ruling by Madam Justice Lynn Smith. Perversely, under the current law, Ms. Taylor might well feel compelled to take her own life prematurely while she is still physically able to do so, rather than when she is ready to, or wants to die.
The federal government should have addressed this socially explosive issue long ago, but in the absence of political leadership, the court is correct to reform the law. It took the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Ms. Taylor and four other people the courage, time and money to force this long-overdue change through a protracted legal challenge, which may yet be appealed.
Much has changed since the last constitutional challenge in 1993, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 5 to 4 against giving Sue Rodriguez the right to die, due in part to concerns that such a law would leave the vulnerable open to abuse.
Jurisdictions that have since legalized assisted suicide, including Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and three U.S. states, have not found this to be the case. There is no more likelihood of abuse than in cases where patients are terminally sedated or given medication for pain relief that may hasten their death.
A better way to protect the vulnerable, notes Justice Smith, is to keep an “almost-absolute” prohibition in place with a strictly limited and carefully monitored system of exceptions for people such as Ms. Taylor, who are “grievously and irremediably ill” and still mentally competent.
Assisted suicide is an option of last resort and must be framed as narrowly as possible. Ottawa, which now has a year to draft new legislation, can look to other jurisdictions for guidance. The Dutch law, for example, offers a six-part test that must be met for a physician-assisted suicide to be legal; each year many requests are rejected, especially in the case of depression. Patients must be certain of their choice, offered counselling, and be allowed to overturn advanced directives at any time, even if they develop dementia.
An absolute prohibition on doctor-assisted death does not take into account the many complexities of this issue; the law must address the rights of people such as Ms. Taylor.