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Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) in Canada

Part 1 of thirteen parts

2011-NOV:
A new lawsuit is filed, Carter v. Canada,
to reactive Sue Rodriguez' original fight.

2011-NOV: Background information about Sue Rodriguez' fight:

Some individuals -- often those suffering from a terminal illness later in life -- find their physical and/or emotional pain intolerable and uncontrollable. They would like to commit suicide, but may lack the knowledge or physical ability to do so. They would like a physician to give them assistance in dying with dignity. However, for a physician -- or anyone else -- to help another person commit suicide has been a criminal act according to section 241(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada,. The situation throughout Canada is very similar to that is in almost all U.S. states.

During the early 1990s, Sue Rodriguez lived in British Columbia and suffered from late-stage ALS -- a.k.a. lou Gehrig's disease. It is a dreadful disease, particularly in its later stages, as muscle activity -- including that needed to swallow and to breathe, degenerate. Once diagnosed with ALS, a person can expect to live only a few years.

Her physician, Dr. McGlynn. had reported in 1992-NOV:

"Ms. Rodriguez has shown progressive physical deterioration.  On a recent visit to her consulting neurologist he noted that she can now only walk a maximum of twenty-five feet at one time, is spending most of her time in a wheel-chair, and is requiring assistance with all activities of daily living.  I saw her earlier this month when she had difficulty managing the secretions of what seemed a fairly minor respiratory tract infection.  In addition to the weakness of her limbs she does now have symptoms of involvement in her head and neck as her voice has become weaker and she cannot breathe very deeply or cough very effectively.

In my contacts with Ms. Rodriguez since May of this year I have always thought that she has a clear and rational mind.  I have seen no evidence of psychosis or of pathological depression. ..."

"I think that with the involvement now of her head and neck muscles and her increasingly profound and generalized muscle weakness that she is entering a phase of her disease which will become progressively more difficult from the standpoint of physical suffering." 6

She filed a lawsuit "Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General)" asking that they declare unconstitutional Section 241(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada. This is the section that criminalized assisted suicide. Her lawyers argued that the code violated three clauses in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- Canada's Constitution. They are::

    • Section 7, which guarantees the right to "life, liberty and security of the person, and
    • Section 12, which guarantees against 'cruel and unusual punishment, and
    • Section 15 which guarantees equal treatment.

She ultimately fought her case to the Supreme Court of Canada. The hearing was held there on 1993-MAY-20. She lost -- again. On 1993-SEP-30. the High Court ruled against her petition by the narrowest of possible margins: a vote of 5 to 4.

Four and a half months later. on 1994-FEB-12, Sue Rodriguez committed suicide, allegedly in the presence of a physician and her personal friend Svend Robinson who was a former NDP (Socialist) member of Parliament. There was a police investigation afterwards to determine if either of the persons present at her death actually assisted her to commit suicide. No charges were ever laid, so it can probably be concluded that the two only supplied emotional support at the time.

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During the late 1990's we wrote:

"It is likely that some individual who is faced with a terminal degenerative disease will bring a similar case before the Supreme Court at some time in the future. It would have to be a slowly progressing disease or disorder, like ALS in its earliest stage, in order to give the individual time to allow her or his case to grind slowly through the court system. The Supreme Court might well decide to overturn its 1993 ruling."

We didn't expect that it would take almost two decades before such a case was launched. However, it was only on 2011-NOV-14 that a new case was heard before the British Columbia Supreme Court.

2011: New constitutional case Carter v. Canada launched in the British Columbia Supreme Court:

A note about terminology: In the U.S. and Canada, when a court has the word "supreme" in its name, it is normally interpreted as being the highest level of court in the state or province. In fact, the British Columbia Supreme Court is the not the highest court in the Province. It is a relatively low level court. Its decisions are often appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal which is the highest court in the province.

About Carter v. Canada:

  • The case had five plaintiffs:
    • Lee Carter and her husband Hollis Johnson. They had taken Lee's mother, Kay Carter, to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland during 2010-JAN so that she could obtain help from a doctor to commit suicide. PAS is legal in that country if performed according to strict regulations. 7
       
    • Gloria Taylor, 63, who is suffering from late-stage ALS, and expects a slow horrendous death from asphyxia as her muscles weaken to the point of paralysis. Like the late Sue Rodriguez, she hopes to legally obtain a physician's help in dying.

    • A physician, Dr. William Shoichet, and

    • The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the non-profit agency that filed the lawsuit. 1

The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Joe Arvay, said that this is an important case because all Canadians in one way or another will watch friends or family members suffer horribly as they approach the end of life. He eloquently said:

"For most of those people we hope that they will be able to have a dignified death by the natural process of life and death. But for a small and important percentage, the process of dying will be very painful, very horrible, and very undignified. It is for those people that this case is about." 1

  • There were two defendants: the Attorney General of Canada and Attorney General of British Columbia.

  • There were six groups granted intervener status: three opposed and three promoted access to assisted suicide. They include:

    • Groups opposed to assisted suicide:
      • The Christian Legal Fellowship, a conservative Christian group.

      • Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (national body)

      • Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (British Columbia chapter)

    • Groups promoting access to assisted suicide:
      • Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die.

      • Canadian Unitarian Council, a liberal religious group.

      • Ad Hoc Coalition of People with Disabilities who are supportive of Physician-Assisted Dying.

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About the main intervener opposed to PAS: The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPCC):

Their web site states that their goal is to:

    "... build a well-informed broadly-based network of groups and individuals to create an effective social barrier to euthanasia and assisted suicide. Our goal is to help build a stronger unified coalition of those who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide." 3

As the Carter v. Canada case began, they had raised about CDN $12,000 to cover their legal costs from among supporters in the Canadian population of 30 million.

Alex Schadenberg is the executive director of the EPCC. He does not seem to look upon PAS as being about terminally ill persons seeking help to die. Rather he views it as about whether physicians should be able to decide, perhaps without considering the wishes of the persons involved, whether to terminate the lives of any of their patients who is suffering. He said:

    "Canadians should understand how wide this case is that’s being heard. The Carter case wants to define it as all people who are suffering and they are trying to grant doctors the right to cause their death. It’s not about choice, it’s about who is gaining the right to do this." 1

That is, his view seems to be that the core issue is whether doctors should be able to legally murder anyone they wish to. That is a scary thought.

Schadenberg's comments indicate precisely why North American legislation governing physician assisted suicide has always contained precise limits and controls to prevent -- or at least drastically reduce -- abuse. The most important protection to prevent abuse is to require the patient to first decide that he or she wishes to end their suffering and their life. They then have to approach their physician for help, not vice-versa.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.  
  1. Petti Fong, "Landmark case renews debate on right to die," The Toronto Star, 2011-NOV-13, at: http://www.thestar.com/
  2. Petti Fong, "Dying man’s last wishes are heard as right-to-die challenge begins," The Toronto Star, 2011-NOV-15, at: http://www.thestar.com/
  3. "Vancouver right to die case," video, The Toronto Star, 2011-NOV-14, at: http://www.thestar.com
  4. The  Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has a web site at: http://www.euthanasiaprevention.on.ca. Their address is: Box 25033, London, ON Canada, N6C 6A8. Their Email address is info@epcc.ca. Toll free phone number is: 1-877-439-3348.
  5. James Dobson, "Dr. Dobson's Study: January 1998."
  6. "Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 1993 1191 (BC CA)," Canadian Case Law, 19930MAR-08, at: http://caselaw.canada.globe24h.com/
  7. Douglas Todd, "The story at the heart of Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on assisted suicide," The Vancouver Sun, 2015-FEB-04, at: http://blogs.vancouversun.com/

Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Assisted Suicide > Canada > here

or: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Suicide menu > Assisted Suicide> Canada > here

Copyright © 2011 to 2016, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2011-NOV-15
Latest update: 2016-FEB-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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