Friday, June 15, 2012

Canadian court strikes down assisted suicide ban

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Canada just keeps making me prouder (or more relieved) to live here. Earlier today, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the country’s ban against doctor-assisted suicide is discriminatory against terminally ill and disabled people because it prohibits them from ending their lives if they wish without assistance:

In her judgment, Smith speaks directly to the situation faced by Gloria Taylor, a BC woman with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, who was one of five plaintiffs seeking to overturn the legislation.

Suicide itself is not illegal. But as such, Smith says the law contravenes Section 15 of the Charter, which guarantees equality, because it denies physically disabled people like Taylor the same rights as able-bodied people who can take their own lives.

“The impact of that 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,” Smith writes. “The distinction is discriminatory … because it perpetuates disadvantage.”

Smith also says the law deprives both people like Taylor and those who try to help them of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Section 7 of the Charter. She argues the legislation could force a person to take their life sooner than they want to in order to kill themselves while still physically capable.

Specifically, the repeal would only apply to “competent, fully-informed, non-ambivalent adult persons who personally (not through a substituted decision-maker) request physician-assisted death, are free from coercion and undue influence and are not clinically depressed”, which should (albeit predictably won’t) assuage critics’ fears about abusing the system, such as is allegedly occurring in the Netherlands.

Additionally, the ruling will only go into effect after a period of one year to give Parliament time to draw up the appropriate legislation. Meanwhile, this new decision contradicts a previous ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, which all but guarantees that the issue will end up being appealed pending a final resolution at some point in the future. Given the increasingly narrow margin in favor of the ban and the mounting pressure to repeal it, I consider myself cautiously optimistic.

(additional info via Rob F)