Bioethics Blogs

Supreme Court Closes Physician-Assisted Dying Debate

J.S. Russell and D.A. Browne discuss the Supreme Court of Canada’s historic decision to strike down the ban on physician-assisted dying.


An historic decision must start with history. The Carter v. Canada case began a few years ago when civil rights lawyer, Joe Arvay, gave a keynote talk at a function sponsored by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). Arvay used his talk to challenge the BCCLA to take on a legal test of Canada’s ban on assisted dying. After that talk, BCCLA lawyer Grace Pastine approached Arvay and they put together a team of litigants and lawyers, including Gloria Taylor (who suffered from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), other patients, private physicians, and the BCCLA. Together they crafted what is certainly the most important legal victory affecting all Canadians in the post-Charter era.

What a victory it is. A unanimous 9-0 decision by the Supreme Court justices. To emphasize their agreement, the justices took the further step of not reporting the author(s) of the decision. Symbols matter. The absence of a named author reflects the special depth of the court’s accord, one that cut cleanly across so-called “liberal” and “conservative” voices on the court.

Supreme_Court_of_Canada_by_night Those who are wondering how the court could have come to an unreserved conclusion on such an apparently controversial topic should have a look at the arguments submitted to the court. These were a brilliant and unprecedented marshalling of legal, moral, and sociological evidence. In effect, Arvay and his colleagues closed the door on any fair-minded effort to sustain the current regime.

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.