There are few things in life more tragic than witnessing a loved one dying of a painful, terminal or degenerative disease. In such cases, quality of life can be severely affected, and many afflicted with near-constant or unremitting pain are unable to experience any kind of joy or pleasure. Because there have been no laws against suicide in Canada since 1972, many victims have made the painful and difficult decision to end their lives rather than continue to suffer until their eventual death. Although some question the morality of such a decision, laws against suicide were removed from the Criminal Code as it hinders individual’s freedom to make decisions over their own life and body. But what happens when an individual wishes to end their own life but is unable to physically due so due to loss of muscle control or other disability?
This was the question that arose in the 1993 case Rodriguez v British Columbia, which argued that laws against physician-assisted suicide violated the fundamental rights of Canadians to the liberty and security of the person, equality, and protection against cruel and unusual punishment, all provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court found that the provision of the Criminal Code making assisted suicide illegal did not violate the Charter, largely because prohibition of suicide in such cases reflected the Charter’s values, particularly the sanctity of life. Additionally, the ruling judge wrote, as paraphrased by one analysis (The Rodriguez Case: A Review of the Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Assisted Suicide), that “in order to protect the lives of the vulnerable, it is necessary to maintain a blanket prohibition on assisted suicide”.
That ruling was the standard for nearly two decades, but there remains a large and aggressive fight to have that section of the Criminal Code overturned. In 2011, the issue was again brought before the Supreme Court of BC, who this time ruled that individual freedoms were violated, but was quickly overturned by the Appeals Court. Later this year, the case will go before the Supreme Court of Canada, a decision that is highly anticipated by those on both sides of the debate. In a legislative action, the Quebec National Assembly recently, passed a bill to allow terminally ill patients the right to die with medical assistance, a law that is likely to be challenged by the federal government. Depending on the outcome of either the legislative or court action, Canada may become one of only a handful of nations where assisted suicide is legal. While public opinion continues to be divided on the issue, as this news story from CTV illustrates, most Canadians agree that we must do more to enforce the right to a death as dignified and free from pain as possible. However, most also agree that protecting those most vulnerable from potential abuse or coercion into assisted suicide is of the utmost importance, and legalizing such an act could demean the value of life. These are but a few factors that are causing the controversy, and as such will be judged in both the Supreme Court and the court of public opinion.
Do you believe that the right to liberty should extend to the right to control the time and circumstances of their death? Are you concerned about potential abuse is assisted suicide becomes legal? Are you concerned that the focus on assisted suicide may cause the fight for improved palliative care to fall by the wayside? Whatever side you agree with, it is clear that the upcoming year will be fundamentally important to both the legal and medical communities, not to mention to large and growing population of those with terminal and degenerative illnesses who may wish to seek out such options in the future.