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Editorials Ottawa’s assisted-suicide legislation contains a fatal flaw

The Supreme Court of Canada overturned a ban on physician-assisted suicide on Feb. 6, 2015.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered his infamous elbow in the House of Commons last week, his testiness may have been prompted by unwelcome news regarding his government's proposed legislation on physician-assisted suicide.

Bill C-14's most contentious clause – the one that would limit the right to assisted suicide to people with terminal illnesses and exclude anyone suffering from psychiatric diseases – was effectively shot down by the Alberta Court of Appeal the day before Mr. Trudeau's unparliamentary antic. The question now is, will the Prime Minister keep his elbows up, or will he acknowledge the apparent shortcomings in the proposed law?

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in February of 2015 that the Criminal Code violates the right to a physician-assisted death of a "competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life; and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition … that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition."

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The court gave Parliament one year to craft a new law, then tacked on a four-month extension. But it also said that, in the interim, people could apply to a superior court for authorization to kill themselves with the aid of a doctor.

This has happened about 20 times since 2015, and all the authorizations have been granted without opposition – except for one. It involved an unnamed Alberta woman with a psychiatric disorder that manifests itself in involuntary muscle spasms that cause her terrible pain, and which have effectively rendered her blind, barely able to eat, and wheelchair-bound.

Alberta's Superior Court granted her request to die, but the federal Attorney-General appealed on the grounds that the Supreme Court decision doesn't apply to a person who is not terminally ill or whose condition is essentially a psychiatric disorder.

The Alberta Appeals Court brusquely rejected Ottawa's arguments. Mr. Trudeau now faces the prospect of yielding to opposition demands to amend his government's bill, or pushing through a law that is vulnerable to constitutional challenge.

The latter option is the government's perfect right – it is Parliament, not the Supreme Court, that writes legislation. But since there is now credible evidence that Bill C-14 misinterprets the intent of the court's ruling, Mr. Trudeau ought to at least consider the possibility that his government made a mistake.

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