On Nov. 14, the B.C. Supreme Court began hearing arguments in Carter vs. Attorney General of Canada, challenging Canada’s laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide. The case, brought forth by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association on behalf of Lee Carter and four others, seeks to throw out Canada’s Criminal Code provisions against euthanasia and assisted suicide and have assisted death treated as a medical issue rather than a legal one.
In 2010, Kay Carter died by assisted suicide at the Swiss Dignitas suicide clinic and the suit filed by the BCCLA on behalf of her family and Gloria Taylor, seeks to establish the legal right for the terminally ill “to receive medical assistance to hasten death under certain specific safeguards.”
Taylor has ALS, a neurodegenerative disease, and is seeking the right to have an assisted death. Carter’s family – daughter Lee Carter and son-in-law Hollis Johnson – claims that because of Canada`s Criminal Code prohibitions, they could have been charged and prosecuted because they joined Kay, who had spinal stenosis, a degenerative condition that confined her to a wheelchair, on her fateful trip to Switzerland. “I believe that the choice to die with dignity should be available to all Canadians,” says Lee Carter. Gloria Taylor said, “I’m asking the court to change the laws in Canada so that all Canadians, including myself, have the right to die with dignity.”
The BCCLA claims the Criminal Code provisions are unconstitutional because they “deny individuals the right to have control over choices that are fundamental to their physical, emotional and psychological dignity and restrict the liberty of physicians to deliver end of life care to incurably ill patients.”
In 2010, Parliament overwhelmingly defeated Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde`s private member’s bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in a 228-59 vote. This year, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson has said the government will not reopen the issue because it was dealth with so recently.
The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C. are both interveners and will argue against decriminalizing assisted suicide. Hugh Scher, EPC legal counsel, said in a press release: “Concerns about safety, security and equality of people with disabilities and seniors will be central to the arguments advanced by EPC before the court, as will concerns about medical ethics and the proposed change in the doctor-patient relationship.”
The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) sent a Nov. 9 letter of support to the EPC in their intervention. COLF director Michele Boulva said, “Canada’s ‘right-to-die’ lobby is currently attempting to bypass the political process by going to the courts.”
The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail both complained that politicians are unwilling to debate the issue of euthanasia despite the fact it was considered in May 2010. The EPC is prepared to wage political as well as legal battle, and has launched a petition campaign to? the Attorney General to prevent the decriminalizing of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Boulva stated in COLF’s letter that the organization, “invites all Canadians concerned about the perils of euthanasia to sign the EPC’s petition urging the Attorney General to take whatever measures he can to prevent euthanasia and assisted suicide from becoming legal in our great country.”
EPC executive director Alex Schadenberg said he finds it “very scary” that pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates are pressing the courts to treat these as medical issues, undermining the Criminal Code protections for vulnerable people. EPC B.C.’s Dr. Will Johnston said in a press release that currently elderly victims of abuse can fight back against abusive family members and caretakers, but he fears that if euthanasia were to become legal, abused elderly persons would be silenced by death to prevent them from challenging their abusers.
Schadenberg has noted that in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, some patients who sought medical treatment have been nudged toward assisted death instead. “If assisted suicide were to be legalized in Canada,” said Schadenberg, “the Canadian health care system would be similarly empowered to steer patients to suicide.”