Attention back on assisted suicide debate

Supreme Court of Canada will hear appeal for physician-assisted death

Another chapter in the Canadian debate over physician-assisted suicide has begun in Ottawa, where the Supreme Court of Canada will hear an appeal in the case of two British Columbian women, Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor.

Taylor, a grandmother diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—more commonly referred to as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease—became the face of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association’s (BCCLA) battle for right-to-die legislation when she joined their 2012 suit, which argued the law against physician-assisted suicide was unconstitutional.

Taylor was joined in that case by two members of Carter’s family, who had escorted Carter to Zurich, Switzerland in January 2010 so she could legally receive the help of a medical professional in ending her life after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis.

Justice Lynn Smith of the British Columbia Supreme Court, who ultimately ruled the existing law against physician-assisted suicide to be unconstitutional, initially deferred her ruling for a year to allow the federal government to write new legislation. She allowed Taylor an exemption to allow her to end her life as she saw fit.

Smith’s ruling was overturned at the provincial court of appeal, but the exemption was permitted to stand. Taylor passed away following an infection in October 2012, her exemption never used.

This time around, the focus of the Supreme Court hearings will be on whether terminally ill and mentally competent persons should be permitted to end their own life with the assistance of a licensed physician, under certain regulations.

Elayne Shapray, a 67-year-old multiple sclerosis patient, has joined this new appeal.

In an interview with the CBC, Shapray stated, “I can no longer turn over or even move in bed – or find comfort in any position for any period of time [ . . . ] My choices for bringing about my death unassisted are self-starvation, over-medication or some violent self-inflicted injury.”

In an earlier interview, Shapray also said that the law as it stands could actually drive her to end her life sooner than she would have otherwise.

“I might have to prematurely make that decision, because you have to do it yourself, and I only have the use of my right hand now [ . . . ] If you don’t do it soon enough, then you lose your opportunity, unless you ask someone in your family to do something illegal, which I wouldn’t do.”

Primary legal opposition to the suit rests on the landmark 1993 Sue Rodriguez case, which determined physician-assisted suicide to be unconstitutional.

Supporters of assisted suicide argue that the ruling on the Rodriguez case is outdated. Since the overturning of the case, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, as well as four U.S. states, have legalized physician-assisted suicide and implemented regulations to control it.

“Choice is a key element of our medical system. Patients have a right to accept or refuse medical treatment [ . . . ] even if that choice leads to death,” said BCCLA lawyer Sheila Tucker in a recent press release.

“It is not the role of government to say that some medical choices result in a ‘natural’ death, while others do not.”

According to the federal government, however, as of right now Rodriguez is the rule on the matter.

The decision to allow the appeal has been met with excitement by many within the right-to-die advocacy community.

“There are few rights more fundamental, or more deeply personal, than the right to determine how much suffering to endure and whether to seek a doctor’s assistance to hasten death if living becomes unbearable. We are relieved that the Supreme Court of Canada has decided to hear our case,” said BCCLA litigation director Grace Pastine in a recent statement.

Shapray concurred, saying she is “overjoyed” by the decision.

“My hope is that the Court will allow people in my situation who endure intolerable suffering from a variety of conditions to choose a peaceful, dignified death surrounded by loved ones and many friends,” said Shapray.

A 2013 Environics Research Group study showed that 71 per cent of surveyed Canadians approved of physician-assisted suicide, compared to 19 per cent who disapproved. A further 10 per cent said that it depends, or that they do not have an opinion. These numbers have remained fairly steady since 1992, when approval sat at 64 per cent.

No date has yet been set for when the Supreme Court of Canada will hear the BCCLA’s appeal.