Just one year ago, on February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada gave a landmark ruling allowing physician-assisted suicide and at the same time gave the federal government one year to produce legislation before the decision takes effect. During the past 12 months, the doctor-assisted dying had been banned.
The Supreme Court overturned a ban on physician-assisted suicide last February, recognizing “the right of consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a doctor’s help.”
The Canadian top court again drew national spotlight last month, with the deadline for assisted death legislation approaching. On January 15, it gave the government more time – four months, instead of six months as the Ottawa government had asked – to pass a law governing the practice, but at the same time it decided to allow doctor-assisted suicide across the country under certain circumstances.
The court had apparently taken into consideration the fact that the work to produce legislation was interrupted due to the lengthy federal election campaign last year – then Prime Minister Harper dissolved the Lower House in August – 11 weeks earlier than usual, which suspended the Parliament until the new Liberal government and new members of Parliament were sworn in on November 4, following the October 19 polls.
The joint parliamentary committee that is examining the divisive issue of doctor-assisted death held its first meeting last month – soon after the Supreme Court’s new decision. The 11 MPs chosen to the panel include six Liberals, three Conservatives and two New Democrats – all of whom will join five senators who were named earlier. (Canadian Press, Jan. 12) They are expected to consider how to bring in a new law on assisted dying that addresses the constitutional issues raised in the landmark Supreme Court ruling a year ago, as well as vast complicated problems such as matters of religion and personal conscience involved in letting human life terminated. Six months requested by Ottawa, let alone four months granted by the court, would not be long enough to produce legislation in response to the heavy decision by the court.
However, Canadian people seem to be supportive of legalizing doctor-assisted death and the Supreme Court decision to endorse it. According to a national survey by Insights West, a market research polling firm based in Vancouver, has found that a 79% of respondents said they “strongly” or “moderately” support the ruling. Only 15% opposed and 6% said they were unsure. “Insights West asked 1,035 Canadians if they supported or opposed physician-assisted suicide, if (1)the request is made by a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life, and (2) the person has a grievous and irremediable medical condition … that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual …” (Huffigton Post Canada, Dec. 4, 2015)
The polls found that support of doctor-assisted dying is high and static across the whole country, with British Columbia leading the pack at 90% approval, followed by Quebec (83%), Alberta (82%), Atlantic Canada (74%), Ontario (72%) and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (68%), according to the HuffPost Canada report.
In the January 15 ruling, the Supreme Court also ruled that Quebec’s assisted dying law, which came into effect in December, can remain in effect. It endorsed Quebec’s Court of Appeal decision to support the province’s right to allow terminally ill patients the choice to die with medical help, the first of its kind in Canada. The law was passed by a large margin in Quebec’s National Assembly in June 2014 but the province’s Superior Court suspended its implementation on December 1. The Quebec assisted dying law has been in effect since December 10. (CBC News, Dec. 22, 2015)
Like it or not, a big trend seems to be growing on the issue of the right to choose death. Immediately after the December ruling, Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould issued a statement, in which she said: “We recognize the leadership that Quebec has demonstrated in developing its own legislation on physician-assisted dying. We will continue to work with Quebec, as well as the other provinces and territories, to develop a coordinated approach to physician-assisted dying across the country.” (CBC News, Dec. 22) Politically, changes from the Conservative Harper government, which was lukewarm to the issue, to the Liberal government may work in favor of the trend.
CBC News Jan. 15 article also reported, without details, that earlier in the day a Quebec City patient had died with the assistance of a doctor, the first such case done legally in Canada.
Furthermore, Canada’s national daily Globe and Mail, in its Jan. 18 editorial, urged the Ottawa government to move quickly on legislation to approve the doctor-assisted dying following the Supreme Court ruling – with a headline, “Allowing assisted suicide isn’t complicated. Just do it, Ottawa.” It suggested that legalizing assisted dying in Canada would help avoid “the kind of end-of-life-care shopping that occasionally draws the ill and dying to certain U.S. states or to Switzerland” – that allow “dying with dignity.”
In its historic 9-0 decision a year ago, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban on physician-assisted dying on the grounds that it violated the right to life, liberty and security of the person as guaranteed under the Charter. The case has been known as Carter vs Canada, stemming from the appeal of a 2012 lower court ruling launched on behalf of two British Columbia women with debilitating and terminal illness, Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter, both now dead. Taylor, who had a neurodegenerative disease (ALS) eventually died of an infection, while Carter, then 89, travelled to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is allowed. (CBC News, Jan. 15, 2016, National Post, Feb. 6, 2015)
With these developments, Canada will eventually be joining a small group of countries and several U.S. states – such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, as well as U.S. states of Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, New Mexico and California – after, hopefully, several months of intense and difficult debate as it deals with core human values, from the sanctity of life and protecting society’s most vulnerable to individual dignity and free will.
By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, TOCS senior consultant