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Supreme Court strikes down ban on assisted suicide

Jessica Hume. (Andre Forget/QMI AGENCY)

By Jessica Hume, National Bureau

The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on July 21, 2011. (ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY)

The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on July 21, 2011. (ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY)

OTTAWA - More than two decades after denying ALS sufferer Sue Rodriguez's request to end her life with the help of a doctor, the Supreme Court shifted gears Friday and unanimously struck down Canada's assisted suicide ban.

The court set specific conditions for when physician-assisted suicide is permitted.

The person must be an adult who is experiencing intolerable suffering that is either physical or psychological; they must clearly consent to the termination of his or her life; and the medical condition must be grievous, "irremediable" and cause "enduring suffering."

"The prohibition on assisted dying is overboard," Canada's highest court ruled. "It imposes unnecessary suffering on affected individuals, deprives them of the ability to determine what to do with their bodies and how those bodies will be treated and may cause those affected to take their own lives sooner than they would were they able to obtain a physician's assistance in dying."

The ruling makes it clear no physician would be forced to help a patient die.

It won't come into effect for 12 months, giving Parliament time to create new laws.

The case was brought forward on behalf of Gloria Taylor, now dead, who suffered from the degenerative disease ALS and wanted a doctor to help her die.

She couldn't afford to travel to Switzerland, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal.

The court concluded "the prohibition on physician-assisted dying deprived Ms. Taylor and others suffering from grievous and irremediable medical conditions of the right to life, liberty and security of the person."

Grace Pastine, lawyer for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which led the case, said: "For seriously and incurably ill Canadians ... this decision will mean everything to them."

Toronto's Linda Jarrett, who has multiple sclerosis, said she now has the hope of dying with dignity.

"This is an absolute relief that gives me some solace about the end of my quality of life, which a mentally competent adult should have the right to choose," said Jarrett, who months earlier was looking at her end-of-life options without the assistance of a physician.

"I'm pro-life. Death isn't in my (immediate) future. I have another grandchild coming. I don't want a quality of life that isn't acceptable to me."

Religious groups and organizations representing people with disabilities had opposed any relaxation of the ban, arguing that this would make them vulnerable.

"This ruling has made it clear that people with disabilities are being targeted and invited to end their lives," said Taylor Hyatt, who has cerebral palsy and spoke from a wheelchair in the Supreme Court foyer. "There's an assumption that your life is unbearable and there's nothing good in it."

With an election upcoming and parties eager to begin campaigning, it looks unlikely new legislation will be passed within 12 months.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay issued a short statement saying the government will study the ruling.

"This is a sensitive issue for many Canadians, with deeply held beliefs on both sides," MacKay said. "We will study the decision and ensure all perspectives on this difficult issue are heard."

- with files from Kevin Connor, Reuters

CANADIAN DOCS MULL NEXT STEPS

Now that the Supreme Court has struck down Canada's ban on doctor assisted-suicide, Canada's doctors hope to have a say in working out the legal and ethical details.

The Canadian Medical Association, which has a membership of more than 80,000 physicians, has been examining the issue of assisted-suicide for many years.

"Now that the decision has come down, we want to really take a leadership role in helping to craft the legislation and the rules and regulation around it," the group's president, Dr. Chris Simpson, said Friday.

The Supreme Court ruled the option of assisted suicide should only be given to "a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition."

"But it's often a subtle thing, the difference between being competent and not being competent," Simpson said.

Who decides whether someone can legally consent? Based on what criteria?

"Is it a single doctor who does that? Is it two doctors? Does it have to be some kind of panel?" he said. "Getting all the details right to make sure that vulnerable people are protected is going to be really important."

The CMA recently changed its anti-assisted-suicide policy to allow doctors to follow the law and their conscience.

Now that the law has changed, he said, they must strike a balance between a doctor's right to follow his or her conscience, and a patient's right to access assisted suicide.

"The ruling appears to be quite clear that physicians should not be compelled to participate and for any the act of participation is the act of referral somewhere else," Simpson said.

"So we really need to develop capacity in the country to provide the service without compelling every single physician, and even most physicians, to participate."

- Sheena Goodyear


In reaction to the ruling, Dying with Dignity held a press conference.

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