Assisted Suicide in Canada (Part II): New times demand new laws
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
If I woke up one day in excruciating pain and realized that my body had completely betrayed me, I would want to take my own life. If I had chosen, with a sound mind, that I no longer wanted to live, yet had to sit idly by while I waited for the days to pass, I would be angry. I would be angry at the circumstances but even angrier that Canadian law would not give me the choice of when and how I may die.
There is now hope for people in Canada who are presently, or may one day find themselves, in this situation: the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) is currently considering whether s. 241 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which prohibits assisted suicide, is unconstitutional.
As the SCC opens its doors to revisit the arguments seen over 20 years ago in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), as well as some new arguments, I understand the concerns of those who defend the current law. I know there is a fear of individuals being persuaded or encouraged to end their life and concerns of murder. I know that vulnerable people need protection. I know that people have moments of despair, and I believe that every life is equally worthy.
Still, I cannot agree with the current law.
It is clear that systems have been put into place to deal with concerns surrounding complex medical decisions, and it is possible to do the same for assisted suicide. Proper safeguard procedures, training of healthcare professionals, thorough documentation, and consultation between patients and physicians are among the many ways that these concerns can be mitigated.
Attempted suicide is not illegal in Canada. The current laws disallow disabled individuals the same right to end their life that able-bodied individuals have, simply because they are physically incapable. While I understand vulnerable individuals need protection, it should not be at the expense of personal autonomy.
Proponents of the current laws have argued that those who are extremely ill are inherently vulnerable, and as a result are less capable of making an informed decision. Just because someone’s body is fragile does not mean their mind is. However, if this concern of vulnerability is warranted, it is not reason enough to remove an individual’s right to make such a personal and fundamental decision. A terminally ill individual should have more say in the course of their life (and death) than the palliative care facility they choose to attend.
Times have changed. Canada has experienced a shift in social values and norms over the past 20 years that suggest many people would support new laws. Evidence is now available from jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legalized which demonstrates the safeguards in place are quite effective. Furthermore, there has been considerable evolution in the court’s approach to interpreting s. 7 of the Charter. This is evidenced by the legal protection of Vancouver’s Insite clinic and the change in prostitution laws.
Chief Justice McLachlin bravely wrote in the minority when Rodriguez, which upheld the current law, was decided. I can only hope that with 20 years of change that Chief Justice McLachlin will find herself in the majority on this occasion, and that one year from now I will write about effective regulations to monitor and safeguard individuals as the legalization of assisted suicide in Canada becomes a reality.
Katherine Deakon (2L) is a contributor to Juris Diction.
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To read Jonathan Nehmetallah’s introduction piece, visit Part I here. For medical student Sophie Palmer’s article, visit Part III here. Dr. Udo Schuklenk’s article can be found here. For Dr. Kaplan’s opinion piece, visit Part V here.