Bioethics Blogs

Canada Marches Toward Expansive Aid in Dying

Canada is on track to enact one of the most permissive assisted dying legislation in the world, with the exceptions of the Netherlands and Belgium. 

On February 25, the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, a federal parliamentary committee created especially to address the issue, released a report that marks a turning point. If implemented in legislation, the report would make medically-assisted euthanasia and suicide available to a broad range of suffering people in Canada: those with serious and irremediable illness, including psychological illness; those who expressed a wish for such assistance prior to losing competence; and possibly competent minors.  The committee also recommended that all publicly funded health care institutions—including those with religious affiliation—be required to participate.

This latest Canadian move toward legalized medical aid in dying originated in June 2011, when a small group of people filed a Statement of Claim in the British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver.  They argued that the Canadian Criminal Code sections, which make it illegal for physicians to help consenting grievously and irremediably ill adults to die, violated their constitutional rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to “life, liberty and security of the person” and to “equality.”  Gloria Taylor, a 64-year-old plaintiff with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, testified that she did not want to suffer a death that is “slow, difficult, unpleasant, painful, undignified, and inconsistent with the values and principles I have tried to live by”.

At trial, the plaintiffs won.  The trial judge’s carefully reasoned 400-page decision, released in 2012, rejected the government arguments that there was a “bright line distinction” between letting die and assisting in suicide or actually killing, and that judicial disregard of the alleged distinction would create a slippery slope leading inevitably to wrongful homicide.  The trial judge accepted the evidence of several ethicists who testified that there is no ethical distinction between physician-assisted death and other end-of-life practices such as withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment when death is likely to result.  The trial judge concluded, based on extensive evidence that “the risks inherent in permitting physician-assisted death can be identified and very substantially minimized through a carefully designed system imposing stringent limits that are scrupulously monitored and enforced.”

The governments appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, where the plaintiffs lost in 2013 because the Supreme Court of Canada had decided 20 years earlier that a sufferer of ALS, Sue Rodriguez, had no legal right to physician-assistance in dying.

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.