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Sue Rodriguez is consoled by NDP MP Svend Robinson after leaving a press conference in Victoria, Sept. 30, 1993. The Supreme Court of Canada turned down Ms. Rodriguez's plea for a doctor- assisted suicide. (Jeff Vinnick/ Reuters/Jeff Vinnick/ Reuters)
Sue Rodriguez is consoled by NDP MP Svend Robinson after leaving a press conference in Victoria, Sept. 30, 1993. The Supreme Court of Canada turned down Ms. Rodriguez's plea for a doctor- assisted suicide. (Jeff Vinnick/ Reuters/Jeff Vinnick/ Reuters)

Right-to-die laws don't lead to rise in assisted deaths, experts say Add to ...

Jurisdictions that pass laws making euthanasia or physician-assisted dying legal do not experience any significant increase in assisted deaths, the Supreme Court of British Columbia has heard.

And there are no data to suggest vulnerable groups – the elderly, disabled or mentally ill – are any more likely to receive euthanasia, according to affidavit evidence submitted in a summary trial in a right-to-die case.

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Sheila Tucker on Monday, a lawyer representing a group of individuals and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, referred to several affidavits on Monday in a case that seeks to strike down Criminal Code sanctions against physician-assisted suicide in Canada.

Ms. Tucker said the evidence of experts is that when euthanasia and physician-assisted dying became legal in places such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Oregon and Washington, it did not lead to a flurry of such deaths or to victimization of the vulnerable.

“There are leading academics who do extensive research in these… jurisdictions… [and]the controls are in fact working,” she said, referring to regulations that determine how and when patients can be helped to take their own lives.

The trial is hearing evidence through affidavits to make the hearing less complicated and time consuming.

It is the first constitutional challenge to the law since Sue Rodriguez, a woman dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, failed in her right-to-die application to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1993.

When Ms. Rodriguez (who later committed suicide) made her application, physician-assisted dying and euthanasia was not legal anywhere.

But in the intervening years, a number of jurisdictions legalized the practice, said Ms. Tucker, which allows the courts this time around to look at how the practice has been working.

She said the record shows that legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides does not cause an outbreak of such deaths, contrary to the fears of critics.

And she dismissed fears that legalizing suicide for fatally ill patients might trigger more suicides in society in general.

“There is no evidence of suicide contagion,” she said, referring to a study in Oregon, where physician-assisted deaths became legal in 1994. “The baseline [for suicides]has stayed the same.”

Luc Deliens, a professor of public health and palliative care at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, stated in an affidavit that in the five years after Belgium changed its laws to allow euthanasia, there was only a marginal increase in the number of such deaths.

He said nothing indicates that changing the law put society on a “slippery slope” to increased suicides or more deaths among the most vulnerable patients.

“Developments over time do not show any indications to support the slippery-slope hypothesis,” he said, referring to studies done before and after Belgium changed its laws to allow euthanasia.

“The data … did not support the repeatedly expressed concerns that vulnerable people (older people, disabled people, people with psychotic disorders) would more easily receive euthanasia,” he stated. “On the contrary, we found that requests for euthanasia from persons 80 and older are granted less often. …Requests from patients with psychotic disorders were never granted, … the chances of receiving euthanasia were found to be lower when depression was one of the reasons [for]seeking euthanasia… We concluded that the findings do not suggest a slippery slope.”

Prof. Deliens said the study also showed that since the law changed in Belgium, dialogue between physicians and patients about end-of-life issues has been more open.

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