O Canada

I heard a bit of news on the radio late Friday evening that froze me to the spot with surprise –

A British Columbia Supreme Court judge has declared Canada’s laws against physician-assisted suicide unconstitutional because they discriminate against the physically disabled.

I thought immediately of Eric. I very nearly got back online to email him (but went to sleep instead).

In a 395-page ruling released Friday, Justice Lynn Smith addressed the situation faced by Gloria Taylor, a B.C. woman who was one of five plaintiffs in the case seeking the legal right to doctor-assisted suicide.

Taylor has ALS, a fatal neurodegenerative disease, and she sought the ruling to allow her doctor to help her end her life before she becomes incapacitated.

Because that’s the terrible fear with diseases like ALS and MS (which Eric’s wife Elisabeth had): the fear of being so incapacitated that you can’t kill yourself when you desperately want to because you’re so incapacitated.

In her ruling, Smith noted suicide itself is not illegal, and therefore the law against assisted suicide contravenes Section 15 of the charter, which guarantees equality, because it denies physically disabled people like Taylor the same rights as able-bodied people who can take their own lives, she ruled.

“The impact of that distinction is felt particularly acutely by persons such as Ms. Taylor, who are grievously and irremediably ill, physically disabled or soon to become so, mentally competent and who wish to have some control over their circumstances at the end of their lives,” Smith writes.

“The distinction is discriminatory … because it perpetuates disadvantage.”

I was staggered by that; it’s such good sense, and I thought I would never hear it.

I want to read the full decision. Legal rulings can be wonderful reading, and I’m told this one is.


  1. says

    Good news indeed. And the Usual Suspects are already ventilating about all the abstractions that justify interfering with the concrete lives of real people.

  2. says

    And not just interfering with the lives of people – forcing people to continue to suffer when those people want to end their suffering.

    It’s a horrible horrible thing.

  3. says

    The Harperites will no doubt appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. It wouldn’t be surprising if Harper makes the next SCC appointment based on the candidates’ position on this issue alone. It’s hard to say what will happen in the short term, but I don’t see either BC or QC backing down. They’ll keep at it until we have a national law.

  4. Hazelwood says

    This is a wonderful decision and I hope part of a trend toward allowing assisted suicide more broadly in the future.

    We helped my grandmother die in the only way available to us which was denial of ‘treatment’; in her case food and water. It took 2 weeks and in the end we were not with her, because we simply could not be at her bedside 24/7. It was a truly horrific experience and I would do anything to save others from having to endure the same.

  5. left0ver1under says

    The anti-choice and anti-freedom brigade are VERY selective when it comes to cases they cite. They love to label cases like Terri Schiavo as being “murder” while being dead silent about the deliberate profit-driven killings of Nataline Sarkisian or Sun Hudson. Both were killed by HMOs decision (or deliberate indecision, in Sarkisian’s case) to reduce costs and increase profit.

    Sun Hudson was killed in March 2005, the exact same month that Terri Schiavo died. If the removal of Schiavo’s life support by her husband was such a big deal to the rightwingnuts, why wasn’t the removal of Hudson’s life support by the hospital and HMO made into a media circus? Where were the “churches” when Hudson’s mother wanter her son kept alive?




  6. Sastra says

    In her ruling, Smith noted suicide itself is not illegal, and therefore the law against assisted suicide contravenes Section 15 of the charter, which guarantees equality …

    I hope this doesn’t mean there will now be a push to make suicide illegal in Canada.

  7. says

    I love that reasoning, I haven’t been aware of this very particular equality argument before but it is simple, elegant and above all right. The law can occasionally seem to be a noble calling…

  8. Stephen Beesley says

    I think this is a positive step overall and I personally wish something similar was happening here in the UK. However we mustn’t forget that there are genuine and possibly well founded fears that such freedoms make possible the pressuring of vulnerable people into taking such steps. So these rights must be counterbalanced by safeguards.

    Furthermore, the availability of assisted suicide may lessen the effect of any pressure we can put on healthcare providers to improve the provision of palliative care for people who, despite having terminal illness, or what others might consider intolerable suffering, still wish to live.

    Oh, and it’s “disabled _people_”, not “the disabled”. Thanks.

  9. Stephen Beesley says

    Oops, missed that the reference to “the physically disabled” was a quote. Apologies.

  10. Jean says

    Isn’t it great when you have judge who has good judgement instead of being judgmental?

  11. says


    We did the same for my Grandmother. She had a stroke, and after the hospital team did an amazing job trying to save her life, it just wasn’t enough. She never woke up after going under for surgery. The hospital had a team, made up of the doctor, a nurse, a social worker, and a psychologist, who met with us to help us make a decision. They didn’t tell us what to do, but they told us Grandma would not recover, and would be hooked up to machines for the rest of her life, and was most likely in a lot of pain. The hardest decision we ever made was to take her off the machines and let her die in our home. We gave her lots of pain medication and stayed by her bed, singing and talking and holding her hand, for three days until she finally starved to death on Christmas moring. Slowly. It was horrible, but the right decision.

    I still can’t handle hearing people talk about “death panels” (for that wonderful group of people at the hospital is what they mean by that). I know that there are people–in my own family, even–who consider my parents and I murderers. But we did what was best for her, and what we knew she wanted. It hurts so much, though, and sometimes I think that they’re right–I did kill her.

    It’s funny…my Grandpa was a strong, conservative Christian until the day he died, and he was insistant that keeping people on machines and all that was “playing God” and totally immoral. He made us promise to never do that to him. And yet there seems to be a new generation that thinks that not keeping people on machines, or letting them die peacefully, is “playing God”. Guess it just shows how you can use your religion to justify anything.

  12. says

    @14: Guess it just shows how you can use your religion to justify anything.

    Exactly — there’s no way to know what God *really* wants, so he/she/it basically becomes the Cosmic Ratifier for whatever the speaker wants (which may, in itself, be good or bad).

  13. onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork says

    That’s a really wonderful thing. My mother died of ALS seven years ago. It was…unpleasant.

    It could have been so much worse too, towards the end. We were fortunate to have Hospice working with us, and my mother was a nurse, so she had many, many doctors and nurses as friends, and they all took a very sensible and understated approach to what we knew was inevitable. They were also very supportive of her right to make choices about how she wanted to die. In my experience (personally and professionally), doctor-assisted suicide is something that happens ‘under the table’ in most places, to greater or lesser degrees. But medical professionals still take risks in helping their patients with something that should be an absolutely inalienable right. I’m glad that Canada took this step; hopefully it will set a precedent.

  14. says

    At the age of 82, my stepfather had a sudden and massive hemorrhagic brainstem stroke at home and after being resuscitated by the paramedics and taken to the hospital (despite the fact that he had a DNR directive) there was no sign of brain activity, and he was unable even to breathe without assistance, with no hope of recovery. After we had assembled the immediate family from across the continent, we made the decision to “pull the plug” – he died within a few minutes.

    There are a lot of complications surrounding right-to-die choices, including the concern about elder abuse, and devaluing the lives of disabled people of all ages – Eric ably addresses them in his post. But to me the most tragic consequence of not allowing assisted suicide is the scenario where someone like Gloria Taylor who has a degenerative disease would feel compelled to kill themself early while they are still physically able to do so, knowing that at the point when living does become intolerable for them they might not have the physical capability to end their own life.


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