On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a law that banned assisted suicide. Although the decision won’t take effect for another 12 months, when it does, it will no longer be illegal for doctors to assist patients in committing suicide in certain situations.
The decision was a unanimous 9-0 decision. Parliament doesn’t necessarily have to enact new legislation within the next twelve months, but very well could, implementing various guidelines, and regulation of doctor-assisted suicide. The Supreme Court has already set out specific conditions in which a person would qualify for doctor-assisted suicide. The patient must be a “competent adult” that would clearly consent to the “termination of life.” The patient must also suffer from a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition that causes “endless suffering.” The suffering can either be physical or psychological. The patient must also be suffering from a condition that is incurable.
The ruling doesn’t make any mention of a terminal illness, but the decision does apply to a wide variety of conditions, which could very well include a terminal illness. This may be where new legislation may help. Parliament could come up with a new law that applies nationally, or leave the lawmaking up to the individual provinces, which could cause a mess, with a mix of various different laws in the individual provinces. The best case scenario is that within the next year, Parliament comes up with new legislation that implements guidelines for doctors when it comes to assisted suicide. That new legislation should be written with the help of actual doctors, not lawmakers who think they understand the medical field. Parliament has 12 months to decide how they want to move forward from this decision.
The court decided that the law that banned assisted suicide outright infringed Canadians’ rights, specifically section 7 of the Charter of rights and freedoms, which states “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of the person […]”.
This ruling for many represents a very positive turning point in Canadian law. 21 years ago, the Supreme Court was faced with the same decision, and ultimately ruled to keep the law in place that banned assisted suicide. It’s a decision that many regard as very positive. In the past, terminally ill patients, to those suffering intolerable suffering as the government put it, have gone to other countries to end their lives. The healthcare system is designed in a way that ensures those who are suffering have to die without dignity. While suffering in that hospital room, chances are, they are no longer the person that they once were. They don’t get the chance to die with dignity, or any sense of pride; instead, their last moments on Earth are spent in a hospital room, and in a state that one could not call dignifying. Those final moments are lengthened with modern technology, prolonging the pain and suffering.
When a dog becomes ill with a disease that will force it to live through the rest of its life in agonizing pain, and suffering, what do most dog owners do? They euthanize it, because they don’t want it to suffer. It’d be “inhumane” to force a dog to suffer though such horrible suffering, and it’s something no dog owner wants to see, or any pet owner for that matter. But, when it comes to human lives, healthcare professionals (not all, many are in fact in support of assisted suicide, but laws prevent this from occurring in many areas) do their best to prolong the pain and suffering.
Those who are diagnosed with dementia eventually forget the names of those closest to them, and are eventually forced to live in long term care facilities. Many do speak of their wish to die before they get to that state, but for many of them, that wish never comes true. Is it wrong to say that if someone faced with intolerable suffering, or with the prospect of forgetting everything, should have the right to end it their lives on their own terms? Isn’t that their call to make? It is, and should be.
The Supreme Court ruling only applies to those who are intolerably suffering. For those that disagree with the ruling, why? Why should people be forced to suffer, and live out their last days in a state very detached from who they once were? People who live with such suffering should be able to make the decision of how they want to live their life, and if that includes ending it, then so be it. No one else should be able to tell another that they do not have the right to die. No one should be able to tell another they have no right to want such a thing in the event they are suffering endlessly due to a condition which is untreatable.
If someone who is literally living through living hell, with no cure in sight, wants a way out, no one should be able to say that’s wrong. It’s not selfish either. A unanimous decision in the Supreme Court of Canada shows that those judges understand it, and it also demonstrates how attitudes have changed in 21 years. Friday, February 6th, 2015 was a bright day in the fight for the right to die with dignity in Canada.