The federal government will appeal a landmark B.C. court decision that struck down a ban on assisted suicide, including a provision that that would have allowed Gloria Taylor – a B.C. woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease and a plaintiff in the case – to end her life with a doctor’s help before the law was recast.
Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson on Friday said Ottawa would seek a stay of all aspects of the lower court decision, saying that “laws surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are most vulnerable, such as people who are sick or elderly or people with disabilities.”
Ottawa had been expected to file an appeal and the case is likely to wind up before the Supreme Court of Canada, said Udo Schuklenk, a philosophy professor who holds the Ontario research chair in bioethics at Queen’s University.
“If you were the government of Canada, you would not want to have a relatively low-level court to have the final say on such a fundamental matter,” Dr. Schuklenk said.
He speculated the B.C. Court of Appeal, which will hear the case, could let the exemption for Ms. Taylor stand even if it grants other aspects of Ottawa’s appeal.
“What the court would look at is what are Gloria Taylor’s interests, and what are society’s interests,” Dr. Schuklenk said on Friday. “And I think it’s very clear that societal interests are not significantly damaged if she would be allowed to get assistance in dying when she requests it.”
In a statement, Mr. Nicholson said the government of Canada would not comment further while the matter is before the court.
A spokeswoman for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which filed the case on behalf of Ms. Taylor and other plaintiffs in 2011, said she was disappointed but not suprised by the appeal.
“The thing we’re really disappointed about is what sounds like the intention to seek a stay on the entire order – which would mean that the constitutional exemption for Gloria Taylor would not be in effect,” said BCCLA spokeswoman Carmen Chung.
“If the government is successful, then she will have no recourse to get a dignified death.”
Ms. Taylor did not immediately return a request for comment.
When the decision was released last month, she welcomed it as providing her a means to die in what she considered a dignified way.
And in an affidavit filed for the B.C. case, she spoke of the choice she faced before the lower-court ruling – which she could face again if Ottawa succeeds in obtaining a stay on the exemption that applies to her.
“I simply cannot understand why the law holds that the able-bodied who are terminally ill are allowed to shoot themselves when they have had enough because they are able to hold a gun steady, but because my illness affects my ability to move and control my body, I cannot be allowed compassionate help to allow me to commit an equivalent act using lethal medication,” Ms. Taylor said in her August 25, 2011, affidavit.
“The law obliges me to act now and kill myself – while I am able but while my life is still enjoyable – or to forego altogether the right and ability to legally exercise control over the manner and timing of my death. That is a cruel choice to impose on someone.”
In a June 15 decision, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith struck down the Criminal Code of Canada ban against doctor-assisted suicide and gave the government a year to rewrite the law, while providing an immediate exemption for Ms. Taylor.
Ms. Taylor was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2009 after experiencing symptoms for years. The disease has no known cure.
Her condition has worsened to the point that she uses a wheelchair to get around and sometimes a ventilator to breathe.
Editor's Note: The original print version and an earlier online version of this article gave an incorrect first name for BCCLA spokeswoman Carmen Chung. This online version has been corrected.