Bioethics Blogs

Carter and the Politics of Certainty

Jonas-Sébastien Beaudry problematizes the desire for “certainty” that has influenced, and no doubt will continue to influence, the debate on physician-assisted dying.


In Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), the Supreme Court of Canada declared the Criminal Code provisions that make it illegal to aid or abet a person in committing suicide invalid.

The Supreme Court held that the Trial Judge at the BC Supreme Court made no error in concluding that “the evidence showed that a system with properly designed and administered safeguards offered a less restrictive means of reaching the government’s objective” – described in Rodriguez v. B.C. (Attorney General) as “the protection of the vulnerable who might be induced in moments of weakness to commit suicide.” As a result, the Supreme Court concluded that the Criminal Code provisions unjustifiably violated the rights to life, liberty and security of competent adults seeking assistance to end their intolerable suffering caused by a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”.

In this case, two legitimate opposing claims needed to be balanced. The appellants sought a dignified death for competent adults seeking physician-assisted dying. Their opponents sought to protect vulnerable populations from external/internalized coercion or undue influence in decision-making about end-of-life care. As such, this case essentially rested on an empirical question: Can administrative safeguards protect vulnerable populations, such as persons with disabilities and elderly persons, from abuse and error?


The Supreme Court’s answer to this question was “yes”. It should have been: “We don’t know (because there simply is no definitive way to know that disabled and elderly persons will be safe once assistance in dying is legalized, even with safeguards), but we have good political reasons for giving it a try.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.