'It is a crime in Canada to assist another person in ending her own life." Those are the opening lines of the Supreme Court's unanimous decision striking down that very section of the Criminal Code. "People who are grievously and irremediably ill," write the judges, "cannot seek a physician's assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: She can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel."
The Supreme Court's remedy for this cruel choice comes down on the right side of justice. The judges have given Parliament a year to rewrite the Criminal Code to permit willing physicians to assist those who wish to end their lives, but only under a narrow set of circumstances. And the principles it has laid out for crafting a new law are sound. In fact, they read like the terms of Quebec's physician-assisted suicide law, Canada's first.
The law was passed last year with widespread support, including from this newspaper, but it ran smack into a legal wall: It permitted what criminal law forbade. On Friday, the Supreme Court resolved that legal conflict by ordering a rewrite of the Criminal Code.
The Supreme Court says that the old ban on physician-assisted suicide was too broad. In cases where the person in question is an adult of sound mind and clearly wishes to end their life, and where that person is suffering from a severe and incurable medical condition that causes intolerable suffering, the court says that the law must no longer forbid a physician from assisting in ending their life.
But the court is also careful to say that its ruling should not be read as obliging doctors to assist a suicide, even under the conditions of clear consent, incurable illness and intolerable suffering. The Charter is a careful balancing act of rights and obligations, and doctors have rights too, notably rights of freedom of religion and conscience.
When Parliament rewrites the law, it should empower willing physicians to offer this treatment to appropriate patients. It must not, however, force any physician to do so. The Supreme Court has struck the right balance.