Russel Ogden has seen enough people end their own lives to convince him that a planned and fully accountable suicide is a right all Canadians should have.
This week in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Mr. Ogden and the Farewell Foundation For The Right To Die will be fighting both the provincial and federal governments to make “self-chosen death” a legal option.
In Canada, the Criminal Code makes it an offence to help with suicide, punishable by a term of up to 14 years.
But the Farewell Foundation is trying to have the law declared unconstitutional, with lawyer Jason Gratl arguing that it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“The criminal prohibition on assisted suicide in Canada causes immeasurable physical and psychological suffering to persons of sound mind who are capable of making informed decisions and who wish to end their own lives in order to avoid that suffering,” states an affidavit filed by Mr. Ogden. “This suffering is certain and it is as extreme as any suffering humanity must endure. This case tests whether Parliament is entitled to cause such suffering to the people of Canada.”
The case began several months ago when the Farewell Foundation sought to register as a non-profit society in B.C., knowing that its application would likely start a legal battle that would go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
When the B.C. Registrar of Companies refused to register the group, on the grounds the organization had illegal purposes, the Farewell Foundation launched an appeal, which will be the focus of a hearing on Tuesday. The group also filed a civil suit against the Attorney-General of Canada to challenge the constitutionality of the law against assisted suicide. On Wednesday, court will hear an application by the Attorney-General to strike that suit.
However those two hearings go, it looks as though the matter is ultimately headed for the Supreme Court of Canada, said Mr. Ogden, an instructor in criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who has studied assisted-suicide issues for 20 years.
He said his group is pursuing the case because Canadians who are terminally ill have no appropriate options if they decide they want to die.
“They can, once in a while, get the benefit of a sympathetic physician, but that is rare, or they can end their lives in violent ways, or they can die quietly and in secret, using methods that are advocated in the how-to literature,” said Mr. Ogden.
He has attended five planned, self-chosen deaths, including one last year in which he accompanied a Canadian woman to Europe to die, and he is convinced it is a better approach.
Mr. Ogden said legally assisted suicides take place within a structure that is accountable to authorities, with detailed reporting required to the police and coroner’s office, but in Canada assisted suicides are “hidden” because they are illegal.
“They happen covertly and they foster clandestine, camouflaged assisted-death practices. We think that it is time for Canada to bring assisted death out in to the open,” he said.
The last constitutional challenge on the issue was in 1993, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 5 to 4 against giving Sue Rodriguez the legal right to die. The Victoria woman, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease, committed suicide in 1994 with the help of an anonymous physician. At her side was Svend Robinson, then an NDP MP who had helped make the case into a national issue.
Mr. Ogden said a lot has changed since the Supreme Court ruled on Ms. Rodriquez’s case. While public opinion was divided on the issue of assisted suicide then, polls now show 70 per cent of Canadians support it, he said. And in 1993 the courts had no models to look at to see how assisted suicide was conducted. It is now legal in several European countries, and in the states of Washington and Oregon.
Mr. Ogden said the woman he accompanied to Europe to die had to make “an excruciating journey” to a foreign country to find the end-of-life assistance she wanted.
“I felt she should have been able to have that here, at home,” said Mr. Ogden.