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Supreme Court strikes down physician-assisted suicide ban

Prof and students weigh in on landmark decision

On February 6, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down the blanket prohibition on physician-assisted suicide in Canada.

The government has one year to rewrite legislation to comply with the decision. When it comes into effect, Canadians will have a legal right to demand assisted suicide under the condition of a “grievous and irremediable medical condition.” They must also be “competent” and consenting adults.

“I put it alongside the abortion decision of Morgentaler and the decision on same-sex marriage as an important moral step that Canadian societies are ready to take,” McGill law professor Daniel Weinstock told The Daily.

The court ruled that sections 241(b) and 14 of the Criminal Code, which prohibit physician-assisted suicide, infringed upon Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and security of the person.

Further, the Court decided that the prohibition’s infringement on Section 7 rights was more than minimal. Extensive evidence convinced the Court that the objective of the prohibition, to protect “vulnerable persons” from committing suicide, could be met by less drastic means, and that physicians could reliably assess patients and apply the informed consent requirement. The prohibition therefore could not be saved by appealing to Section 1 of the Charter, known as the “reasonable limits clause.”

“[The provinces] will very likely look to Quebec for ideas.”

The ruling is also favourable to provincial Bill 52, “An Act respecting end-of-life care,” that was passed into law last June, legalizing physician-assisted suicide in Quebec.

The Court credited Bill 52 as an influencing factor in the decision. “It forms part of the context in which the judges took their decision,” Weinstock noted. “The judges know that this legislation exists and that it has very broad support among the population.”

Massimo Orsini, a first-year law student at McGill, agreed that Bill 52 will be an important blueprint for future legislation. “The Supreme Court [gives] provinces time to draft appropriate [legislation], and they will very likely look to Quebec for ideas,” Orsini told The Daily.

Orsini also said that the impact of the decision is important for law students. “It reminds us to be humble, that the law isn’t something divorced from social life but rather something that applies in some of our most intimate moments,” he told The Daily.

Kyle Ng, a first-year medical student at the University of Ottawa with experience in bioethics, agreed that this verdict will have a great impact on the medical community.

“This decision has far-reaching consequences in every field of medicine from birth until death,” he told The Daily. “I can’t think of anything more impactful to medicine today.”

Ng was, however, skeptical of the Court’s ruling against blanket prohibition.

“I can’t trust that the medical profession will get this entirely right, 100 per cent of the time,” Ng said. “We have to come to grips with the fact that the medical profession is not perfect – there will be mistakes.”

He also emphasized that mental health problems that lead to thoughts of suicide should be addressed adequately.

“Cases untreatable and unresponsive to palliative care are exceedingly rare compared to suicidal ideation,” he said. “I’m not going to say the Supreme Court is wrong, but we are going to suffer a huge loss in society if we don’t figure out problems of mental health and palliative care in advance, before this decision gets implemented.”