Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

Sue Rodriguez is consoled by NDP MP Svend Robinson in 1993 after the Supreme Court of Canada turned down her plea for a doctor-assisted suicide.

Jeff Vinnick/Reuters

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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 an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies