Skip to main content

Lee Carter, left, and her husband Hollis Johnson attend a news conference in Vancouver in April, 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.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Before Gloria Taylor joined the fight, Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson were the public faces for British Columbia's right-to-die case.

The married couple travelled to a Switzerland clinic in 2010 when Ms. Carter's mother, Kay, decided to end her life. When the landmark court case – cited as Carter v. Canada (Attorney-General) – was announced last year, it was Ms. Carter and Mr. Johnson who met the media to share their story.

Ms. Taylor, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, joined the cause a few months later and, given her terminal condition, quickly became its focal point. But with her sudden death last week, and the case still weaving its way to the appeal courts, the onus is again on Ms. Carter and Mr. Johnson to help portray the human side in a constitutional struggle.

"When we respond, hopefully we have [Ms. Taylor's] spirit, and of course Kay Carter's spirit, and Sue Rodriguez," Mr. Johnson told The Globe and Mail during an interview Tuesday. "These are, all three, very pioneering women, and hopefully we just carry them forward and their wishes forward."

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in June that Canada's ban on physician-assisted death is unconstitutional. It gave Parliament one year to draft new legislation. Ms. Taylor was granted a constitutional exemption that permitted her to seek physician-assisted death while the ruling was suspended.

The federal government appealed the decision on both the ban, and Ms. Taylor's exemption. The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the exemption in August. The court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the ban itself in March. It has long been speculated that the case will end up in the Supreme Court of Canada – where, in 1993, Sue Rodriguez lost her fight to legally end her life.

Ms. Taylor, the only person in the country who was permitted to seek physician-assisted death, died Thursday from a severe infection due to a perforated colon. She did not use the exemption.

Ms. Carter said Tuesday the case will go forward and serve as Ms. Taylor's legacy. She and her husband remain confident the courts will rule in their favour. When asked to share memories of Ms. Taylor, Ms. Carter said they "connected" instantly and became good friends.

"I think it was the fighting spirit that she and my mom shared that was the initial drawing card in our friendship," she said. "They both had this sense of fairness and this dogged determination that took them to places many people wouldn't venture."

Ms. Carter's mother suffered from spinal stenosis and, before she travelled to Switzerland, had been told by her doctor she would soon be reduced to lying flat in a bed, unable to move.

Grace Pastine, litigation director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, a co-plaintiff, said Tuesday that while Ms. Taylor will sorely be missed, her death should not have too much of an impact on the case because the evidence has already been entered.

What further impact Ms. Taylor could have had with the public is difficult to measure. As she recounted how her disease was causing her body to fail, she became a powerful symbol for the right-to-die movement. And, had Ms. Taylor met the requirements put in place by the judge and used her exemption, that might have rebutted concerns those requirements don't go far enough.

Under the judge's conditions, Ms. Taylor's physician would have had to attest Ms. Taylor had been informed of her terminal prognosis, treatment options, and risks. She would have then been referred to a physician with palliative care expertise for consultation and been advised she could change her mind. Ms. Pastine said Ms. Taylor hadn't applied for the exemption because she "wasn't ready to go." "For Gloria, life was still meaningful," she said.