Law banning doctor assisted suicide ruled unconstitutional in B.C.

Most western countries do not allow doctor assisted suicide citing the potential for elder abuse, but it is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland – and now in a ruling that is certain to cause controversy, Canada could be added to that list.

Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith struck down the criminal law that bans doctor-assisted suicide, calling the law discriminatory, disproportionate and overbroad.

Smith noted that the law does not prohibit suicide, yet those suffering from ALS and other physical disabilities can not do so without assistance.

The ruling came when a Westbank woman suffering from ALS argued in court with other plaintiffs that the criminal law was unconstitutional, and that people with serious illnesses should have the right to seek out a legal, comfortable end to their life with the help of a doctor. They noted that palliative care is not universally available in Canada, and although it is getting better, even the best care can not alleviate all suffering.

Smith ordered her new ruling be given a one year suspension in order to give Parliament time to draft up a new legislation, but made an exemption for the Westbank woman – Gloria Taylor – who is wheelchair-bound and on a feeding tube. She has been granted a constitutional exemption during this period, and is permitted to seek out legal, doctor assisted suicide.

In the 365 page ruling, Smith wrote, “In addition, the legislation affects her right to life because it may shorten her life. Ms. Taylor’s reduced lifespan would occur if she concludes that she needs to take her own life while she is still physically able to do so, at an earlier date than she would find necessary if she could be assisted.”

The ruling is expected to be appealed as both the B.C and Canadian government opposed Taylor in court.

“The impact of the distinction is felt particularly acutely by persons such as Ms. Taylor, who are grievously and irremediably ill, physically disabled or soon to become so, mentally competent and who wish to have some control over their circumstances at the end of their lives,” she continued.

Smith noted that the western countries that currently allow euthanasia all have safeguards in place that ensure only specific categories of patients are allowed to seek this option, and that second opinions and other protocols are required.

“No evidence of inordinate impact on vulnerable populations appears in the research,” she wrote.

During the trial, the plaintiff’s lawyer Joe Arvay pointed to evidence that those who are want this kind of help are already getting it illegally, in the same way that women were seeking out unsafe abortions decades ago before those laws were changed.

It was almost twenty years ago when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 5-4 against allowing Victoria woman Sue Rodriguez, who also suffered from ALS, to pursue doctor assisted suicide. A year after that ruling, she committed suicide with help from her friend, NDP MP Svend Robinson, and a doctor.

The Judge also noted that the criminal law infringes on one’s right to liberty, as those helping a loved one die peacefully are at risk of going to prison for doing so.

Sources: Winnipeg Free Press,

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