Consider the following thought experiment even if you'd rather not: You develop a severe degenerative neurological condition, one that ultimately leaves you confined to a hospital bed, dependent on machines that do virtually everything, including helping you breathe.
Your mind remains sharp, however. And you decide that this is no way to live, that you want doctors to stop those very machines that help you breathe. But the law will not permit it: Interested as it is in protecting vulnerable people who might be depressed or coerced by family members, the law mandates that you must remain with us until the bitter end.
A barbaric situation, isn't it? And worse, for a Quebec woman named Nancy B., that was no thought experiment. That was her life. And her death: In 1992, the Quebec Superior Court held that she had the right to have her respirator turned off. In other words, it held that doctors were permitted to perform an action that would hasten her death.
One year later, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Sue Rodriguez, a British Columbia woman with a degenerative neurological condition, was not entitled to an assisted death. In other words, it held that doctors are not permitted to perform an action that would hasten her death.
What's more, the court cited concerns with abuse vulnerable people as one of its primary justifications for upholding the ban on assisted suicide. So while withdrawing life-saving treatment became an accepted practice, despite risks to vulnerable individuals, assisted suicide remained prohibited because of the risks to vulnerable individuals.
That was then. This is now: On Friday, a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada finally remedied that fundamental disconnect as it declared unconstitutional the Criminal Code's prohibition on assisted suicide.
The court specifically concluded that the prohibition violates all three rights guaranteed by s. 7 of the Charter of Rights: the rights to life, liberty and security of the person. As to the right to life, the court noted the paradoxical result of the law: Some individuals commit suicide early on in the course of their illness for fear that they will become incapable of doing so as the illness progresses. People with degenerative illnesses often "die ... piece by piece," as plaintiff Gloria Taylor poetically described it, and eventually, the piece that allows them to take their own lives goes missing.
Moving to the rights to liberty and security of the person, the court noted that the law denies to people their right to autonomy in medical decision-making and hence to personal and bodily integrity. And while acknowledging that vulnerable people face risks from an assisted-suicide regime, the court stressed that "there is no reason to think the injured, ill and disabled who have the option to refuse or to request withdrawal of lifesaving or life-sustaining treatment, or who seek palliative sedation, are less vulnerable or less susceptible to biased decision-making than those who might seek more active assistance in dying."
The court therefore declared the law unconstitutional but suspended the declaration for 12 months to give the government a chance to introduce new legislation that conforms to the Constitution. And now that the court has done what Parliament should have done – and could have done – in the two decades since Rodriguez, it is time for Parliament to do what it must: Design a new law that not only protects vulnerable people from abuse, but that also protects the right of competent, capable people to live, and die, as they choose.