In a historic decision, the Canadian Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that adults who are mentally competent and suffering intolerably and permanently have the right to seek a doctor's help in dying — and it doesn't matter if that suffering is physical or psychological.

For Canadians, this is a decision 22 years in the making. Back in 1993, the court narrowly rejected the request of Sue Rodriguez — a 42-year-old woman dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — to end her life with the help of a physician. Today's ruling involved two women, both now dead, who likewise claimed the right to doctor-assisted suicide.

Sean Fine from The Globe and Mail provides some details of the ruling:

The court called the law against assisted suicide cruel and said that, far from protecting the vulnerable, it harms those who suffer terribly and unchangingly. It began Friday's momentous ruling: "It is a crime in Canada to assist another person in ending her own life. As a result, people who are grievously and irremediably ill cannot seek a physician's assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel."

The court did not strike down the Criminal Code's prohibitions on assisted suicide, but said they no longer apply "to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition."

The court made it clear that nothing in its ruling suggests physicians may be compelled to assist a patient in dying, adding that doctors have the ability to address whether an adult is capable of informed consent.

Advertisement

Contrary to the Conservative government's stance on the issue, the Supreme Court rejected the assertion that the sanctity of life was at stake.

According to Fine, "a key to the ruling was a trial judge's finding that jurisdictions such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Washington and Oregon that allow physician-assisted dying have shown they can protect vulnerable people from death against their wishes." The Court said there's no evidence to support the claim that elderly people or people with disabilities are vulnerable to assisted dying.

What's more, the court argued that the Canadian charter does not require an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, writing that:

This would create a 'duty to live,' rather than a 'right to life,' and would call into question the legality of any consent to the withdrawal or refusal of lifesaving or life-sustaining treatment... An individual's choice about the end of her life is entitled to respect.

As noted by the CBC, the ruling leaves some questions. The judges were silent, for example, on whether depression or mental illness qualifies as a medical condition. That said, they did include "psychological pain" under the criteria of enduring and intolerable suffering.

Advertisement

The ruling will take effect one year from now to give the Canadian government, medical regulatory bodies, and the individual provinces some time to enact new laws and policies around assisted dying.

The entire ruling can be found here.

[ The Globe and Mail | CBC | Top image: Reuters/Chris Wattle ]

Related: Why You Should Fight For Your Right to Die