Anyone who follows my Twitter feed will be familiar with my habit of occasionally spontaneously going on rants about how much I love my city. I really do – we have a mayor I can respect, we have a proud tradition of social activism, we live in greater harmony with our natural environment than most cities our size. Despite its faults, Vancouver is a great place to live. Similarly, despite the fact that I don’t hold our government in terribly high esteem, I do rather like the province of British Columbia. Lots of hydroelectric power, natural custodianship, and abundant natural beauty. We got it like that.
But I am pretty confident that I have never been more proud to live when and where I live that I do after hearing this news:
A B.C. judge ruled Friday to strike down the law that makes physician-assisted death illegal in Canada. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith ruled that the cur-rent law violates the constitutional rights of the three plain-tiffs who led the landmark legal challenge, launched by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “They succeed because the provisions unjustifiably infringe the equality rights of Gloria Taylor and the rights to life, liberty and security of the person of Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson,” the judge concluded in a 395-page written judgment released Friday.
I took a bioethics class as part of my undergraduate curriculum. Understandably (I think), it is a requisite course to get a degree in health sciences. The course touched on the philosophical underpinnings of the arguments on a number of issues – consent, autonomy, confidentiality – the usual suspects. Despite still occasionally flirting with my Catholicism (I lived in a state of ignorance about my own atheism for years), the issue of physician-assisted suicide never really seemed like much of a conundrum for me. Of course people should be allowed to decide when they die – it’s only moralistic fops who could possibly look at artificial heart and lung machines, defibrillators, incubators, and countless other life-prolonging technologies and say that the time of a person’s death is something that only their god can decide.
Of course we know much better than that. The vast majority of people do not want to die, but there are some whose circumstances make death preferable to life. Of that group, many are unable to self-terminate – either for reasons of fear or because they have a debilitating disease that prevents them from taking the physical steps necessary to do that. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) is one of those conditions that would make the act of throwing one’s self off a bridge or shooting one’s self or some other “classical” suicide method impossible. In cases like the plaintiffs’, physician assistance is required.
The central philosophical fight here is the extent to which patient autonomy trumps the rights of society to set its own moral standards. Strictly speaking, medical decisions are not made by popular vote, but because physician-assisted suicide will use publicly-funded resources (presumably drugs, hospital beds, etc.), the public technically has a say. As it happens, we appear to be facing one of those happy circumstances where public mores and patient autonomy are more or less in sync. Laws against attempting suicide were removed in the 1970s, meaning that while Canada may once have seen self-termination as a fundamentally immoral issue, it hasn’t been that way in nearly 40 years. When it comes to doctor-assisted suicide, public opinion has clearly shifted since then.
Much like the story of Ontario legalizing brothels, this is a provincial decision, meaning that the federal government (whose law is being deemed unconstitutional) has the option of appealing it to the Supreme Court of Canada. Because the government is made up of, and voted for by, the same moralistic fops I referred to in the previous paragraph, it is a virtual certainty that they will appeal. They have the option, of course, of revising the law to comply with the provincial court’s interpretation of the Charter, but this is fairly unlikely for a number of reasons. First, this isn’t simply a legal issue to the Republican North voter base – this is an incontrovertible moral issue. Second, that same base isn’t exactly wild about the Charter to begin with. Third, because this government is a bunch of dickish bullies who don’t seem to understand the concept of dissent as anything other than treason.
That being said, I’m not exactly wild about the legal justification for this ruling – a right to life and security of the person doesn’t necessarily confer a corresponding right to death, and I’m almost certain that will be part of the appeal fight. However, considering that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is on record supporting that interpretation, it’s a fairly safe bet that the appellate attorneys will have their work cut out for them*. If I was a betting man, I’d wager that the appeal will focus on whether or not adequate alternatives (like hospice care) already exist, eliminating any grounds to claim that the laws infringe on the plaintiff’s Charter rights.
However this shakes out next, Canada appears poised, despite the despots in Ottawa, to be moving along the path of a modern liberal country which prioritizes the well-being of people over the moralistic busybodyness of its more regressive instincts.
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*I searched for a bit, but I couldn’t find any legal precedent governing how a ‘right to life’ has been argued in court before. My legal team tells me that Section 7 challenges are predominantly about rights to ‘liberty’ and ‘security of the person’. If anyone has any references, I’d love to know about them.