The case of Sue Rodriguez, a British Columbia woman seeking a legal physician-assisted suicide, was heard before the Supreme Court of Canada on May 20.  Following the televised hearing the Court reserved judgment, but is expected to respond quickly in consideration of Ms. Rodriguez’s deteriorating health.

Ms. Rodriguez, who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, petitioned the British Columbia Supreme Court in December 1992 to allow her o have a doctor assist her to commit suicide when she no  longer wishes to live.  The court denied her request, as did the British Columbia Court of Appeal.  Ms. Rodriguez appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The nine Supreme Court Justices heard arguments from Ms. Rodriguez’s lawyer Chris Considine, the Attorneys General of Canada and British Columbia, and several intervenors granted status before the Court because of their compelling interest in the case.

At issue is section 241(b) of the Criminal Code which prohibits aiding another person to commit suicide.  The act of attempting suicide oneself is not a crime, however.

Considine argued that s.241(b) discriminates against Ms. Rodriguez because she is not legally able to seek assistance to take her own life, an act which she could legally accomplish without assistance if she were able-bodied.  Considine claimed discrimination under s.7 (life, liberty and security of the person), s.12 (cruel and unusual punishment), and s.15 (equal benefit of the law without discrimination) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Considine asked the court to declare the operation of s.24(b) in violation of Ms. Rodriguez’s constitutional rights and grant an exemption to her and any doctor who chooses to help her end her life.

The Right To Die society of Canada, the group headed by John Hofsess, agreed that the law is discriminatory because it denies a group of individuals “the right to control the circumstances of their dying.”  The Society asked the Court to find s.241(b) invalid and suggested that if the Court was concerned about the legislative gap created by this action, it could grant Ms. Rodriguez an exemption and permit the section to stay provisionally in place for six months to give Parliament time to address the issue.

The British Columbia Coalition of People with Disabilities also agreed that Ms. Rodriguez should be given an exemption.  They further suggested that the Court declare that s.241(b) does not apply to persons aiding the suicide of “mentally competent adults who have made a considered decision to cease living but are physically incapable of carrying out their decision.”  The Coalition believes that s.241(b) discriminates “against persons with severe physical disabilities as they are unable to carry out a decision to end their lives without assistance.”

However, another advocacy group for the disabled, People in Equal Participation Inc., presented an opposite opinion.  The group’s members “consider themselves to be a vulnerable group in society in need of the protection s.241(b) provides.”  They urged the Court not to “respond to Ms. Rodriguez’s tragic circumstances by making bad law for the balance of Canadian society.”  The group asked the Court to dismiss Ms. Rodriguez’s appeal.

The Respondents in the case, the Attorneys General of Canada and British Columbia, also asked that the appeal be dismissed.  They submitted that s.241(b) is not discriminatory, that in the event that it is found to be discriminatory it is justified under s.1 of the Charter (reasonable limits), and that Ms. Rodriguez is not entitled to an exemption from the law.

The Attorney General of Canada pointed out that the threat to Ms. Rodriguez’s life and health comes not from s.241(b) but from her disease.  Further, he stated that “to grant a constitutional exemption in these circumstances is tantamount to a recognition that physician assisted suicide in the case of the terminally ill is a constitutional right, when it is not recognized as an acceptable form of treatment or palliative care within the medical profession…There are sound policy reasons for the current law, especially given the difficult ethical, religious, medical and social issues involved.”

The Pro-Life Society of British Columbia and Pacific Physicians for Life agreed with the argument of the respondent Attorneys General.  In their brief they stated: “The commencement of state sanctioned physician-aided suicide would signal a dramatic weakening of our society’s commitment to the sanctity of life.  The intrinsic worth of a human life, independent of utilitarian calculations as to its value or ‘quality,’ has always been a guiding principle and fundamental belief of our society.”

They submitted that the medical profession does not want state physician-aided suicide legalized, and that it should not be thrust on an unwilling profession.  As well, they said, it is likely that it would “come to be seen as a panacea for the many difficulties faced in treatment of the infirm, especially the terminally ill…The Dutch experience tends to confirm the fear that, if physician aided suicide is condoned, energy and resources are diverted away from symptom management care of the sort which allows patients to live out the natural courses of their lives with dignity and minimal discomfort.”

They concluded, “Our society should use the issue of euthanasia as a stimulus to define its true responsibilities to the dying.  Energies and resources should be devoted to doing more to help these patients live out their lives in a dignified and satisfying manner.”

In a joint brief, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada also requested that the appeal be dismissed.  They stated their belief that, “human beings, created in the image of God have inherent worth and dignity.  Human life therefore must be valued, respected and protected throughout all its stages.”

“Our living together in community requires a basic thrust that human life and dignity will be respected and protected.  Euthanasia and assisted suicide erode this trust and undermine the community’s commitment to life and responsibility to care and comfort,” they continued.  “The public acceptance of physician-assisted suicide will also result in an undue pressure on those who are elderly and infirm, to lessen what they perceive to be a burden on others by instructing one’s physician to kill them.”

All of the participants in the case advanced the view that the issue is one that Parliament must address.  The House of Commons’ most recent opinion on assisted suicide was reflected in March when the motion of Ian Waddell (Mission-Port Moody) on the subject was defeated by a margin of 140-25.