It has been 18 years since Sue Rodriguez, diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ( ALS), narrowly lost her challenge to the assisted suicide law in the Supreme Court of Canada.
During this period, there have been many developments on this issue elsewhere in the world. Physician-assisted suicide, where doctors provide patients with medication to end their lives, is now legal in Switzerland and in four U.S. states, while euthanasia, where doctors administer a lethal injection to consenting patients, is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Even in the United Kingdom, where assisted suicide remains illegal, prosecutors have opted not to pursue charges against family members who accompany their loved ones to Switzerland for an end to their suffering.
In Canada, however, debate about assisted death in either of its forms has virtually disappeared from the public agenda since 1993. Aiding or abetting a suicide remains a criminal offence punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison, while administering euthanasia is a homicide with a maximum life sentence. The free vote that Jean Chrétien promised in the House of Commons after the Rodriguez decision never happened, and private member’s bills to change the law have been routinely defeated in the House.
By a remarkable convergence of events, however, this period of inactivity may be about to end. On Monday, the B.C. Supreme Court began hearing a new constitutional challenge to the law, launched in part by another woman, Gloria Taylor, who is an ALS patient. Arguments will continue until next month, with a decision expected early in the new year.
As if that were not enough, a team of researchers commissioned by the Royal Society of Canada released a report Tuesday addressing the intricate ethical issues raised by both forms of assisted death, concluding they are not more difficult to justify than already accepted end-of-life treatment options, such as the discontinuation of life support, that are equally capable of hastening death.
More to the point of the legal challenge, the expert panel recommends that both assisted suicide and euthanasia be legalized for competent patients who make the informed choice to die, whether or not they suffer from an incurable illness. In reaching this conclusion, the panel had to deal with the familiar objections that legalized assisted death would lead to a “slippery slope” or be susceptible to abuse. The panel responded to these concerns by drawing on the experience of other jurisdictions, especially the Netherlands, concluding that there is no evidence that vulnerable sectors of the Canadian population would be at increased risk if a legal regime with appropriate safeguards were put in place.
The expert panel’s conclusions and recommendations will inevitably be controversial. Assisted death, in either of its forms, is a topic that elicits strong opinions. The very idea of legalizing these practices will be anathema to some, though not perhaps to the majority of Canadians. While these issues have attracted only sporadic attention in this country over the past 18 years, public opinion now runs strongly in favour of legalization, a tendency that undoubtedly owes much to Ms. Rodriguez and the intense publicity that attended her legal and personal battles.
So assisted suicide and euthanasia are about to enter the spotlight again. The panel’s report will not settle the controversy, nor will the judge’s decision in the B.C. challenge or the eventual judgment of the Supreme Court when it once again hears the issue. Consensus on this matter is not to be expected or even, in a pluralistic country like ours, to be welcomed.
I support the panel’s recommendations and look forward to the day when an assisted death will be available to patients in Canada who are suffering at the end of life. But mostly I welcome the renewed public debate. We have a lot of catching up to do.
Wayne Sumner is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Assisted Death: A Study in Ethics and Law .Report Typo/Error