Skip to main content

Gloria Taylor addresses a news conference in downtown Vancouver in 2011. Ms. Taylor is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease and is seeking the legal right to physician-assisted suicide.

Nineteen years after Sue Rodriguez lost her fight in Canada's highest court, the country has been thrust back into the debate over physician-assisted suicide.

British Columbia's Supreme Court on Friday declared unconstitutional Criminal Code provisions that prohibit doctors from helping their patients commit suicide. In the landmark decision, Madam Justice Lynn Smith said the provisions discriminate against people who are too ill to take their lives.

Judge Smith gave Parliament a year "to take whatever steps it sees fit to draft and consider legislation." Her ruling is suspended until then. However, she granted plaintiff Gloria Taylor a constitutional exemption that permits her to proceed with physician-assisted death during that period under specified conditions.

The ruling makes Ms. Taylor the only person in Canada – for the next year, at least – who could legally commit suicide with the help of her doctor. Ms. Taylor – who cried when she learned the news – must meet a list of conditions imposed by the judge. The conditions could serve as a blueprint for those who want to end their lives the same way, if and when they're permitted to do so.

A federal Justice spokeswoman said the minister is reviewing the judgment; no decision on an appeal has been announced.

Joseph Arvay, the lawyer for Ms. Taylor, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, said he does not know what her plans are.

Grace Pastine of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association met reporters outside the court and called the ruling "a watershed decision" and a "major victory for individual rights at the end of life."

Ms. Pastine read a statement from Ms. Taylor that said: "I am deeply grateful to have the comfort of knowing that I'll have a choice at the end of my life. This is a blessing for me, and other seriously and incurably ill individuals. This decision allows me to approach my death in the same way I have tried to live my life – with dignity, independence and grace."

Under the judge's conditions, Ms. Taylor must have her physician attest she is terminally ill with no hope of recovery. The physician must also state Ms. Taylor has been informed of her prognosis, treatment options and risks. She must then be referred to a physician with palliative care expertise for consultation and be advised she can change her mind.

Ms. Taylor's physician and a psychiatrist must then attest she is competent. If Ms. Taylor decides to go forward, she must carry out the final act herself, unless she's not physically able.

"Unless Ms. Taylor has become physically incapable, the mechanism for the physician-assisted death shall be one that involves her own unassisted act and not that of any other person," the judge wrote.

When reached at her home, Ms. Taylor said she was taking in the news with her family. She's expected to say more on Monday.

The constitutional challenge case was brought forward by Ms. Taylor, four other individuals and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The case revisited the constitutional challenge that Ms. Rodriguez took to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1993. Ms. Rodriguez lost, and later committed suicide with the help of an anonymous physician.

The B.C. Supreme Court case heard evidence on what type of physician-assisted suicide system Canada should incorporate. Plaintiff Lee Carter – who travelled with her mother, Kay, to a clinic in Switzerland so the older woman could end her life there – pointed to that country's safeguards.

In her ruling, Judge Smith said the Criminal Code provisions that infringed on Ms. Taylor's rights also infringed on those of Ms. Carter, since the latter woman was put at risk, at least in theory, of incarceration for helping her mother.

With reports from Wendy Stueck and Gloria Galloway