Debate about whether or not Canadians should legalize the individual’s right to choose physician-assisted suicide has been raging since the early 1990s. Advocates argue that not only does criminalizing assisted-suicide inflict needless pain on the terminally ill, but it strips these same individuals of their right to end their lives as an able-bodied person is legally able to do.
Suicide itself is not illegal in Canada. But those who assist another person in an attempt are subject to criminal prosecution and could face up to 14 years in prison, reports the CBC. Last week, the debate over assisted suicide was reignited when B.C. Superior Court judge Lynn Smith declared Canada’s laws against physician-assisted suicide unconstitutional on the grounds that they discriminate against the physically disabled (via CBC.ca). Smith noted that suicide is not a criminal act for an able-bodied person, so neither should it be for a person who by virtue of their physical limitations needs to call on the aid of another person.
Said Smith in her ruling: “The distinction is discriminatory … because it perpetuates disadvantage.”
Five plaintiffs brought the case before the B.C. Supreme Court. The group included the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Gloria Taylor, a B.C. woman who has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). ALS is a fatal neuromuscular disease and is usually fatal within two to five years of diagnosis. In 1992, Sue Rodriguez, also suffering from ALS, asked the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn its ban on assisted suicide. Her suit was unsuccessful.
But the B.C. ruling, which won’t take effect for another 12 months reportedly, has many concerned about the potential implications of legalizing assisted suicide.
CBC.ca quotes Will Johnston, the chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C., who fears that the ruling could open up the possibility for abuses, especially among the aged.
Said Johnston: “We think that this judgment decided to minimize and disregard a lot of the evidence of harm in other jurisdictions where assisted suicide and euthanasia has been practised, and we are extremely concerned about the situation of elder abuse which is a major issue in Canada.”
Others worry that the option will take the pressure off the federal government to fund better palliative care for the terminally ill.