Justice Lynn Smith

The federal government has come out strongly against assisted suicide in an appeal against a British Columbia judgment declaring the ban to be unconstitutional. On Oct. 26, it filed its legal argument with the B.C. Court of Appeal, claiming that assisted suicide is prohibited in order to protect the most vulnerable members of society who might otherwise be coerced into ending their lives.

The purpose of the Criminal Code, according to the federal Justice Department brief, “is to protect the vulnerable, who might be induced in moments of weakness to commit suicide” and “it is a reflection of state policy that the inherent value of all human life should not be depreciated by allowing one person to take another’s life.”

The federal government is contesting the Carter v. Canada decision made by Justice Lynn Smith of the B.C. Supreme Court in June. Justice Smith ruled that the ban on assisted suicide violates Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by forbidding the disabled and terminally ill from seeking help to commit suicide. Justice Smith also gave an immediate exemption from the current law to Gloria Taylor, a plaintiff suffering from ALS. Taylor died in October, reportedly of natural causes.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the matter in 1993, ultimately upholding the prohibition on assisted suicide in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General). Thus, the federal brief noted, Justice Smith “improperly purported to overrule the SCC decision in Rodriguez.

The document also states that the judgment did not heed the evidence presented during the trial, which showed that “safeguards” to prevent the abuse of assisted suicide laws do not work. Also, it is impossible to know if the patient is not affected by depression or other mental problems while making a decision.

On his blog, Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition wrote, “Justice Smith seemed to ignore the facts and the conclusions from the Belgium study… which found that 32 per cent of all euthanasia deaths in the Flanders region of Belgium were done without explicit request.”

Ultimately, the government makes the point that Justice Smith “effectively substituted the values and preferences of the respondents over those of Parliament, which represents the will and values of Canadian society.” In April 2010, a private member’s bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide was overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons by a vote of 228 to 59.