Skip to main content

Elayne Shapray, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, arrives for a news conference in Vancouver, Oct. 29, 2013. Shapray and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association made a urgent plea to have a choice in how to die.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

A B.C. woman with multiple sclerosis has joined the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in its quest to have the Supreme Court of Canada fast-track a decision on whether it will revisit the thorny topic of assisted suicide for the second time in 20 years.

In doing so, Elayne Shapray stands to become the public face in a cause that appears to be headed to the top court, which in 1993 narrowly ruled against B.C. resident Sue Rodriguez and declined to change the law that prohibits doctor-assisted death.

Wearing a red sweater, sitting in a wheelchair and speaking in a voice that was at times barely audible, Ms. Shapray described MS as an "interminable" disease that has taken her ability to move, sleep without pain or hug her grandchildren.

"I am essentially a prisoner in my own body," Ms. Shapray said at a BCCLA press conference. "My MS now impacts my life to the point where I no longer consider my life worth living unless I also possess the means to leave it at a time of my choosing."

The BCCLA is asking the Supreme Court of Canada to fast-track both its decision on whether to hear the case and, if it does, the timeline for doing so, citing the "cruel predicament" faced by Ms. Shapray and others who would like the option of a legal physician-assisted death.

"This is a matter of extreme urgency," BCCLA lawyer Grace Pastine said at the press conference. "We are asking the Supreme Court to hear this appeal and to expedite the proceedings before lives are lost as a result of the progression of diseases and the passage of time."

The BCCLA and other plaintiffs, including family members of a woman who travelled to Switzerland to obtain a physician-assisted suicide in 2010, filed their court case seeking to overturn the law in April, 2011. B.C. resident Gloria Taylor joined the case as a plaintiff a few months later.

Ms. Taylor had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that results in gradual paralysis, and said in an affidavit that she feared that she would "eventually suffocate and die struggling for air, like a fish out of water."

Ms. Taylor attended several court proceedings and on occasion spoke to reporters about the progression of her disease and her worries about losing her independence.

Last year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge found the Criminal Code of Canada provisions against physician-assisted suicide were unconstitutional and gave Parliament one year to rewrite the law. The decision provided a special exemption for Ms. Taylor.

She died in October, 2012, of an infection without having used the exemption she had been granted.

Ottawa appealed the decision. Earlier this month, the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the lower court's ruling and upheld the ban, citing the Supreme Court of Canada's Rodriguez decision as a "binding authority" on the issue.

The BCCLA has filed for leave to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Ms. Shapray filed an affidavit in 2011 in support of the BCCLA's original application. On October 23, she filed a new one to support the BCCLA's request for an expedited process.

The debate over assisted suicide is in the spotlight as a result of several developments, including the B.C. case, proposed assisted-suicide legislation in Quebec and a posthumous video of Donald Low, a microbiologist who was a public figure in Toronto's SARS crisis in 1993, speaking in favour of the practice. Dr. Low died in September of a brain tumour.

Intervenors in the B.C. case, including the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, want to see the criminal prohibition upheld and say changing the law would pose a risk to vulnerable people, including those who are elderly or disabled.

Ms. Rodriguez died in 1994 with a physician's help. A criminal investigation was conducted but no charges were laid.