Skip to main content

David Butt is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer

The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of doctor-assisted dying in some limited circumstances. We have now been plunked dramatically on one of the slipperiest slopes we as a society are ever likely to encounter.

Slippery slopes, so the metaphor goes, are to be avoided at all costs, because arrival on one portends a sure slide into disastrous ruin, made more tragic by frantic, flailing attempts to arrest the inevitable. The slippery slope metaphor screams at us that the Supreme Court got it all wrong.

Effective as it is however, the slippery slope metaphor simultaneously does what metaphors do worst. While stimulating the imagination, and channelling critical thought in one direction with powerful imagery, effective metaphors also eliminate dictatorially any alternative imagining of what is going on. But we must re-imagine the metaphor to eliminate hidden inaccuracies it introduces into our critical thoughts about this important social issue.

The fact is, with the right tools, slippery slopes are quite manageable. Think of a vertical plane of frozen ice. Even ice climbers of only moderate ability scramble up, down and sideways on frozen waterfalls using axes, crampons, screws, a safety harness, and a rope. The slippery slope metaphor as all too often used says nothing about tools, thus it wrongly implies we are helpless to address complicated social issues where margins for error are low, and consequences of error grave. This underestimates us all.

The court has recognized, in ringing unanimous terms, that we possess the collective capacity to engage fully with the nuanced and potentially dangerous social issue of doctor-assisted dying, navigate its perils, and emerge with a richer collective sense of inclusion despite difference.

The court's reasoning moves us, perhaps uncomfortably, out of the sheltered retreat of easy absolutes, past the fear of engaging, and into a messy middle ground where each step must be prudently thought out, and multiple deeply-held, legitimate and differing value sets delicately integrated.

What the Court has done is oh-so-21st-century. Gone are the days when one value set – usually based on majoritarian religious dogma – enjoyed presumptive social dominance. Gone too are the good old days when that value set could be legislated. The decline of this dated paradigm of certitude is unsettling to many. But hastening its decline, as the Supreme Court has just done so dramatically, has the compensatory benefit of responding with sensitivity to pluralism's contemporary thrust.

This big-tent approach to deep moral issues is not new. Recent rulings from the Supreme Court, and from lower courts following the Supreme Court's lead, have made it clear that moral absolutes cannot carry the day under the Charter of Rights, even on far-reaching matters such as same-sex marriage, abortion, prostitution, and obscenity. The court has now added quality of life and end-of-life decision making to that list, treating this latest complex moral problem with the same flexibility it has have demonstrated in the past.

The court has not set us on this new journey unaided. It has provided clearly articulated parameters on when doctor-assisted dying can be legally defensible, and when it cannot. That, however, is not to be confused with "solving" the issue of doctor-assisted suicide. It will remain a challenge on two levels – how best to design or modify protocols to address the issue when it arises, including preventing abuses, and how to apply those protocols with compassion in individual cases.

The court also gave us important clues about why the issue will remain challenging. We see in doctor-assisted suicide a collision not just of differing and deeply held beliefs about the sanctity and quality of life. We see also a collision of those with different social vantage points: the patient; the doctor; and the collective interests of the community in which both doctor and patient symbiotically reside. The Supreme Court has reminded us that continuing, context-sensitive reconciliation of all these legitimate differences of perspective and approach is essential. Not an easy challenge, but a worthy one.

The Supreme Court has not mapped out for us with precision the route to be taken along the slippery slope of doctor assisted dying. But the court has provided principled guidance, while reassuring us that, like the ice climber, we do have the tools and talent to find the route ourselves. We should take to heart that vote of confidence, because perhaps most importantly, the court has also said this is a climb we must make, as it is a looming part of the path ahead.