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The Globe and Mail

B.C. civil liberties group sues to legalize euthanasia in Canada

Lee Carter, left, and her husband Hollis Johnson attend a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday April 26, 2011. They accompanied her 89-year-old mother Kathleen "Kay" Carter, who suffered from spinal stenosis, to Switzerland in January 2010 to end her life. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit Tuesday to challenge the laws that make it a criminal offense to assist seriously and incurably ill individuals to die with dignity.

DARRYL DYCK/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

Nearly two decades after the country's highest court ruled against a B.C. woman who wanted to be euthanized, another B.C. woman's case has laid the groundwork for a challenge to Canada's assisted-suicide laws.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association – along with a daughter who helped arrange her elderly mother's death – announced the lawsuit at a news conference in downtown Vancouver Tuesday morning. In a notice of claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court, the parties argued that Criminal Code provisions against physician-assisted death are unconstitutional because they deny individuals the right to control their physical, emotional and psychological dignity.

After the association laid out the legal basis for the case, Lee Carter shared her story of travelling to Switzerland with her 89-year-old mother to end the elderly woman's life. Ms. Carter was joined at the news conference by husband Hollis Johnson, and the couple conceded they could be opening themselves up to criminal charges. In Canada, it's illegal to counsel, aid or abet a person to commit suicide, with a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison.

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"We definitely knew what we were doing was against the law. … I guess sometimes you have to break the law in order to move ahead," Mr. Johnson told reporters, two photos of his mother-in-law sitting on a table nearby.

Kathleen (Kay) Carter was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2008 while she was residing in a care home in North Vancouver. Spinal stenosis involves a narrowing of the spine, and by the next year Kay Carter was confined to a wheelchair, unable to dress or feed herself, or to use the bathroom on her own. Although her family said her mind remained sharp, she suffered chronic pain and was told by a doctor she would eventually be reduced to lying flat in bed, unable to move.

Around July, 2009, Kay asked Ms. Carter and Mr. Johnson to help arrange the physician-assisted suicide. The couple agreed but kept the plan – they called it a "covert operation" – within the family, afraid Canadian authorities would intervene if they caught wind of it.

They filled out what they described as thorough paperwork – consisting of Kay's medical records and statements that she was of sound mind – then received approval from the Swiss assisted-dying group Dignitas and headed for Switzerland. After medical consultations at the facility, she was given a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital. It was dissolved in liquid in a glass and she drank it through a straw.

"Kay fell unconscious within minutes," the lawsuit reads. "As Erica [a staff member]advised the accompanying family members that Kay could still hear them talking, they reminisced about their father and other family memories. Kay was pronounced dead approximately 20 minutes later." Her ashes were eventually scattered in a forest.

Ms. Carter said the entire operation, including travel and related expenses, cost about $30,000, a price she acknowledged not every Canadian family can afford.

In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 5-4 against Sue Rodriguez, a B.C. woman who wanted to be euthanized before Lou Gehrig's disease left her debilitated.

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Grace Pastine, the civil liberties association's litigation director, said the time is right for the legal challenge. She noted assisted suicide is in effect in Washington, Oregon, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and the practice is not quite as controversial as it was two decades ago.

Ms. Pastine said mentally competent adults suffering from serious and incurable illness should have the right to medically assisted suicide under certain safeguards. Those include multiple doctor's visits and assurances that the person making the choice to end their life is mentally competent.

Although the case was filed in B.C. Supreme Court, Ms. Pastine said it's likely it will end up at the Supreme Court of Canada.

William Shoichet, a Victoria physician, is also listed as one of the plaintiffs in the case. He referred calls to his lawyer Tuesday, but said in the court document he would be willing to participate in physician-assisted deaths. "Dr. Shoichet would require that he be satisfied the patient in question was fully informed, had given due and proper consideration to the issue and was expressing a continuing and genuine desire for death," the document said.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman said the ministry had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not comment. The Attorney-General of Canada has 21 days to file a reply.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said his organization will intervene in the court case if necessary. He expressed doubt that safeguards would work and said the key is to provide a proper level of care so the infirm don't feel as though they're living without dignity.

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