Federal Government Appealing BC Supreme Court’s Assisted-Suicide Ruling

Following our previous Slaw post, where we commented on the June 15 British Columbia Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Criminal Code ban on physician-assisted suicide. While the court declared the law against assisted suicide invalid, the judge suspended that declaration for one year to allow the Federal Government time to draft legislation with the ruling in mind. However, during the period of suspension, a constitutional exemption was put in place to permit Ms. Taylor (one of the plaintiffs) the option of physician-assisted death under a number of conditions.

Without any surprise (since Parliament voted not to change the physician-assisted suicide law just two years ago), on July 13, 2012, we learn that the Federal Government has decided to appeal that decision. However, with the appeal, the Federal Government is seeking to stay all aspect of the decision including the exemption order found in the ruling.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a statement,

The government is of the view that the Criminal Code provisions that prohibit medical professionals, or anyone else, from counselling or providing assistance in a suicide, are constitutionally valid,” Nicholson’s statement said. “The government also objects to the lower court’s decision to grant a ‘constitutional exemption’ resembling a regulatory framework for assisted suicide.”

Nicholson further stated, the Federal Government’s position is that the law prohibiting doctor-assisted suicide exists to protect those who are most vulnerable, such as the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. He added the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged the state interest in protecting human life by upholding the current law in the 1993 case of B.C. resident Sue Rodriguez.

Lawyer Carmen Cheung with the BC Civil Liberties Association is not happy with Ottawa’s decision and said,

Madame Justice Smith’s decision was thoughtful, well-reasoned, thorough, meticulous, and for the government to try to seek to appeal it is very disappointing.”

As of Friday, the Federal Government had not yet filed their appeal or stay documents. However, many interested stakeholders expect this case to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Legalizing assisted suicide is a very important legal and moral debate and cannot be dealt with lightly. And as Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University says, the debate comes down to a direct conflict between the value of respect for human life, on the one hand, and individuals’ rights to autonomy and self determination – the value of “choice” – on the other.

I really am ambivalent on the issue but she made a good point,

Strong arguments against legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia at the individual level include a valid concern about their abusive use, especially in relation to old people, and particularly when paired with increasing disquiet about health-care costs. Two relatively recent Environics polls showed Canadians are very concerned about elder abuse if assisted suicide/euthanasia is legalized and that elderly persons could be pressured to accept euthanasia to reduce health-care costs.

I suggest that if we ask ourselves a series of questions about legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia, many of us will conclude that it’s a very bad idea.

Why are we debating assisted suicide/euthanasia now when there is so much more we can do to relieve pain than was possible in the past? Would legalizing assisted suicide/euthanasia harm medicine and society? The answer is a clear yes. In a secular society, medicine and law are the principal institutions that carry the value of respect for life. They could no longer do so in an unambiguous way.

If we legalized assisted suicide/euthanasia would it become the norm? Abortion gives a clue in this regard. How do we want our great-great-grandchildren to die? This is probably the most important question of all.

What do you think?


  1. I don’t find most of what Margaret Somerville says these days to be very persuasive. Her natural-law point of view (whatever western society has traditionally done for the past couple of centuries is right – I exaggerate a little) leads her to oppose same-sex marriage and various other social positions that she has no actual evidence to show are harmful, while ignoring a lot of the harm done by existing practices. (Who was it who said he was a victim of an intact family?)

    In the quotation here, she combines assisted suicide (what one does to oneself) with euthanasia (what one does to someone else), which are far from the same, and ignores any safeguards or the wishes of competent terminally-ill adults.

    It is not surprising that the federal government is not content to leave the law on this point to a single trial judge, however reasonable that judgment seems – and the current federal government is unlikely to find it reasonable. An appeal does not mean automatic reversal; judgments are frequently upheld on appeal. It is unfortunate that Parliament does not really have the nerve to take bold positions where ideology does not drive them (like abolition of gun controls or of environmental controls or of science-based statistics…).

  2. Some conditions like ALS and certain forms of cancer end so painfully, even with pain medication, that compassion demands we administer relief. It should be possible to construct a law that prevents abuse while permitting a doctor to prescribe a treatment that will end the suffering.