VANCOUVER — A battle has begun in a Vancouver courtroom over the status of Canada’s law against assisted suicide.
The fight comes just a year and a half after the country’s parliamentarians voted down a bill to throw out the law by a 228-59 majority.
But Canadian judges, like their American peers, routinely defy legislators.
“I’m very concerned that a single judge, out of concern for the genuine suffering of a single patient, will throw out a law that is protecting hundreds of others from abuse and death,” said Will Johnston, a British Columbia physician who is chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of British Columbia.
Opponents of the law include: the B.C. Civil Liberties Association; a doctor who wants to be able to euthanize his willing, terminally ill patients, and several people with degenerative diseases. Meanwhile, the attorney general of Canada, supported by anti-euthanasia and disabilities groups, is defending the law.
The case itself was fast-tracked because the physical condition of one of the plaintiffs, Gloria Taylor of Kelowna, is deteriorating rapidly. Taylor, 63, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She argues that her condition will rob her of the ability to commit suicide. She thus claims that the law preventing assisted suicide is discrimination on the basis of disability, which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom prohibits.
“One of my greatest fears is to have to rely on others for all my needs. I do not want to live in a bedridden state, stripped of my dignity and independence. I have decided I want to die when I no longer have quality of life,” Taylor stated in her affidavit.
Twenty years ago, another British Columbia woman with ALS, Sue Rodriguez, took the same law to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1993, after her death, the court supported the law by a narrow 5-4 vote. Wanda Morris, the executive director of Dying With Dignity Canada, is hopeful that vote will be reversed.
“The court agreed that Sue was being discriminated against,” said Morris. “But it ruled that the discrimination was justified to protect the weak and vulnerable from abuse and because nowhere in the Western world had anyone legalized assisted suicide. But now eight other jurisdictions have done so, four of them American states, and all the studies show that the safeguards in those places work.”
To strengthen this claim, Morris points to a new Royal Society of Canada report, two years in the making, and released the day after the Vancouver trial began. The report concluded that European and American safeguards are working and that assisted suicide and euthanasia should both be legalized. “We are recommending that the criminal code be changed in such a way as to permit physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia,” said Udo Schuklenk, an Ontario bioethicist who chaired the panel that produced the report.
But opponents of assisted suicide dismiss the panel as hopelessly biased. “It was stacked from the beginning. I predicted this conclusion two years ago,” said Alex Schadenberg, head of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada, an intervenor in the case.
Moreover, those defending the criminal code have a low opinion of safeguards. Rhonda Wiebe, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians With Disabilities’ end-of-life ethics committee, said, “The Royal Society should have looked at Belgium.” She cited a study of euthanasia in Belgium that was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in June 2010. It reported that 31% of those euthanized did not consent.
“The council is alarmed by this court action,” Wiebe said. “We see it as a recipe for lethal abuse. Canadians with disabilities are already not receiving equitable access to medical and other services. We are concerned about the consequences if it becomes legal to euthanize us or coerce us to commit suicide, especially when this is seen as a more economic option for the disabled than treatment.”
While proponents of assisted suicide argue for individual self-determination, opponents worry that permitting assisted suicide will expose the vulnerable to coercion. John Coppard, who served with NATO in Afghanistan until he was diagnosed with brain cancer just over two years ago, was front and center on the protest line outside the B.C. Supreme Court Nov. 14.
“I’m glad that the doctor who told me I had only a 20% chance of living past five years was not allowed to offer me help committing suicide,” said Coppard. “Because I certainly thought about suicide.” Instead, Coppard learned of an effective new treatment which has since put the disease in remission.
“This lawsuit is very bad public policy,” he added. “The law exists to protect me and people like me from suicide.”
Coppard warned that “the largest wealth transfer in history” — that between the baby- boom generation and its heirs — was about to take place. He predicted it would provide sufficient incentives for many to urge suicide on their ailing parents.
Is Palliative Care Effective?
Much of the debate, and some of the courtroom testimony, dwells on the effectiveness of palliative care. Grace Pasline of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association told a TV reporter, for example, that palliative care would not prevent the “suffering from being unbearable” in a minority of cases. And for that minority, assisted suicide could ensure a “humane and compassionate death.”
Public awareness of palliative care figures significantly in polling on the issue. While those seeking to legalize assisted suicide can point to polls showing 70% in favor, those opposing legalization point to other polls that show when Canadians are given a choice among legalized assisted suicide, improved palliative care or both, 70% chose the second option.
“You can always get 70% of people to agree to something that seems to make things better for people,” explained the B.C. Euthanasia Prevention Coalition’s Johnston. “Then there are 30% who think about what is really at stake. In this case, what is at stake is the legal foundation of civilization. Over the centuries we’ve gradually established the right not to be killed arbitrarily by our rulers. Now they are proposing to give that up.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.