Once again, Canada may be on the verge of breaking new ground in a case involving the decriminalization of assisted suicide. Back in 2003 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 preventing an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) patient, Sue Rodriguez, from having recourse to assisted suicide. This time, a British Columbia (BC) court ruled that Gloria Taylor, an ALS patient who wants to choose her moment of death, had the right to decide when. However, the ruling does not change the law for all future patients—just for Mrs. Taylor.
According to the BC court ruling, the Canadian federal government has a year to change the existing law to allow assisted suicide. Or, the case can once again make it to the Supreme Court. The Canadian court system, similar to U.S. courts, has been known to provide rulings with far-reaching social, cultural and political ramifications. Access to a therapeutic abortion, gay marriage and decriminalization of marijuana for simple possession and medical use are examples of the judicial audacity of our Canadian courts in recent years.
Canada’s Supreme Court judges are chosen by the prime minister, then scrutinized—but not confirmed—by the legislature as in the U.S. Canadians have benefitted from enlightened judgments that make Canada a leader in advancing the rights of individuals and breaking new ground. The adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights in 1982 has only added to the Court’s scope and range in decision-making.
This case has already stirred the waters. Some experts like Margaret Somerville, director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, argue that the BC court ruling represents a slippery slope. It seems to place individual autonomy above all other values, says Somerville.
Others counter that legislation in the Netherlands, Belgium and in U.S. states such as Oregon, show that conditions must be met to avoid abuse and respect the rights of the disabled and therefore, allow assisted suicide. The case of Taylor is interesting because she is not in a terminal phase and does not want to die. She merely wants the right to choose and decriminalization would facilitate her wish.
Just recently, the Québec government set up a committee of experts to examine the legal implications of decriminalization. This initiative comes off the heels of a province-wide consultation by an all-party parliamentary committee. While it will be ultimately the decision of the federal government to decide to amend the criminal code, there is no doubt that the British Columbia court and the Québec initiative will have an impact on the final decision.
There are clearly important moral considerations to this case and the whole issue of decriminalizing assisted suicide. Research and palliative care have improved the state of the terminally ill—but that is not enough for many in the disabled community. The Canadian government should look to other jurisdictions that allow assisted suicide in some cases and, if certain conditions have been met, it can decide to allow it by changing existing laws. Canada has long prided itself in taking the time to make enlightened decisions. This may very well be another such occasion.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.