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Health & Fitness Packed galleries highlight importance of right-to-die constitutional challenge

Gloria Taylor outside the BC Supreme Court in Vancouver December 1, 2011.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

There is no accused in court and the judge does not have to decide guilt or innocence, but the outcome of the trial known as Carter versus the Attorney-General of Canada is literally a matter of life and death.

The importance of the case was highlighted on Thursday by the packed public gallery in the B.C. Supreme Court, where the family and friends of Gloria Taylor gathered to hear opening of the argument phase in a constitutional challenge to Criminal Code sanctions that make physician-assisted suicide illegal in Canada.

Ms. Taylor, who is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, has sworn a key affidavit in a case brought by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and a group of individuals, including Lee Carter, who helped his mother obtain a physician-assisted death in Switzerland.

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The last time the law against assisted suicide was challenged 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 ALS, later committed suicide.

Ms. Taylor and others who have provided dramatic and moving testimony through affidavits, say they don't want to have to end their lives illegally.

Joseph Arvay, the lead lawyer for the group, said his clients treasure life, but are afflicted with "diseases we all know and fear," that cause intolerable suffering and inevitable death.

Mr. Arvay read excerpts from Ms. Taylor's affidavit, while the 63-year-old woman from Westbank, in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley, listened intently. She was wrapped in blankets, sitting in a wheelchair, her hands resting on a pair of red Olympic mittens in her lap.

"I am dying. I do not want to, but … I can accept death because I recognize it as a part of life. What I fear is a death that negates, as opposed to concludes, my life," she stated in her affidavit.

"What I want is to be able to die in a manner that is consistent with the way that I lived my life. I want to be able to exercise control and die with dignity. ... I want to be able to experience my death as part of my life and part of my expression of that life," she stated.

Mr. Arvay also quoted from the affidavit of Leslie LaForest, 54, a married artist and entrepreneur from Vancouver who has an 18-year-old daughter – and a life threatening case of stage-three anal cancer.

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"While doctors are aiming for a cure, there is a chance it might not happen, and death from this disease is ugly," she said. "I want to have the right to die at a time that is within my control, not after unremitting pain has become my bedside companion or morphine has taken over my consciousness and I have passed into oblivion."

Ms. LaForest said she is battling her disease and hopes for a cure, but if that doesn't come, she is determined to take control of the final stage of her life.

"I mean what I say. And I will die the way I mean to – whether laws are changed to help me do so with dignity or not," she stated.

Ms. LaForest said Canada's laws have forced her to consider going out of the country to a jurisdiction where physician assisted suicide is legal, but that is a costly and daunting option. Among other things, she was worried about how much it would cost her family to bring her body home.

Mr. Arvay said 38 binders on a nearby trolley cart contained "a mammoth record" of legal arguments and statements from people such as Ms. LaForest and Ms. Taylor who want the right to choose physician-assisted death.

He told Madam Justice Lynn Smith that the evidence he is putting forward has no similarity to the more limited record heard by the court in the Rodriguez case, and that it is time for the courts to revisit the issue.

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He is expected to continue argument until early next week, before lawyers from the federal and provincial governments counter.

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