The BCCLA believes that Canadians who are suffering unbearably at the end of life should have the right to choose a dignified and peaceful death.
The BCCLA filed a lawsuit to challenge the laws that criminalize doctors for helping competent, seriously ill individuals who wish to hasten death. Our death with dignity lawsuit argues that the right to control when and how to die is integral to the life, liberty, and security of seriously ill Canadians.
Canadians who suffer from diseases such as terminal cancer, Huntington’s disease, and multiple sclerosis should be able to choose a compassionate death. They also deserve the peace of mind and improved quality of life that comes with knowing that should their suffering become intolerable, a peaceful and dignified physician-assisted death will be an available choice. We believe that where deeply personal choices regarding end of life care are involved, the patients themselves should make those decisions, not the government.
Choice at the end of life
Patients have a right to accept or refuse medical treatment – for example, a patient can refuse kidney dialysis, or mechanical ventilation, even if that choice leads to death. It is not the role of government to say that some medical choices result in a “natural” death, while others do not.
Regulation, not criminalization
The current laws force seriously ill Canadians to resort to violent methods or the “back alley.” Tragically, people find ways to end lives that have become unbearable, no matter what the law says, even if that means choosing a violent, risky death. Regulation of choice in dying, rather than the criminalization of doctors, provides the best protection for seriously ill Canadians.
It’s time for change
It has been 20 years since the Supreme Court of Canada heard Sue Rodriguez’s plea for justice. Ms. Rodriguez suffered from MS and asked for the right to choose how and when to die. In a divided 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the law that criminalizes doctors for assisting the sick and dying to have choice at the end of life.
Since that time, there has been a sea change in social thinking on these issues. Many countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the states of Oregon and Washington, now allow for assisted dying.
These programs have been rigorously documented and studied. Their experience reveals that the fears are unfounded. It’s time for Canada to adopt a new approach to dying that respects compassionate choice.
Gloria Taylor was an active, independent 61 year-old when her doctor told her she had ALS. The doctor told Gloria that the disease would likely paralyze her within six months, and would kill her within a year. Gloria outlived that – she survived three additional years. During that time, she waged a public fight to die on her own terms. She was the lead plaintiff in our lawsuit. With the help of the BCCLA, Gloria became the first Canadian ever to win the right to ask a doctor for help in dying. When we called Gloria to share the news of her legal victory, she cried, “Thank you, God.” Holding up a cup in a toast to her late friend who died agonizingly from ALS, Gloria added, “This one’s for you, Peter. We bloody did it!” In the end, Gloria did not have to ask a doctor for help to die peacefully. She died suddenly and unexpectedly from an infection in 2012. Gloria’s family members, including her 85 year-old mother, Anne Fomenoff of Castlegar, B.C., and her eldest son, Jason Taylor, of Kelowna, B.C., have continued Gloria’s crusade.
Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson
Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson, a married couple of Roberts Creek, B.C., are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Lee and Hollis accompanied Lee’s 89 year-old mother, Kathleen (“Kay”) Carter to Switzerland in January 2010 to end her life. Kay suffered from spinal stenosis, a degenerative condition that confined her to a wheelchair, unable to feed herself or go to the bathroom without assistance and suffering from chronic pain. Kay was fiercely independent and determined to leave life on her own terms. Because she had to keep her plans to receive assistance in dying a secret, Kay could not even risk saying good-bye to many of her loved ones.
Elayne Shapray and seriously ill Canadians
Elayne Shapray of Vancouver, B.C. joined the BCCLA’s legal fight in 2011 when she provided a personal affidavit in support of the lawsuit. Elayne was one of numerous seriously ill Canadians who stepped forward to share their deeply personal stories with the courts. The case is a matter of extreme urgency to Elayne who suffers from the late stages of multiple sclerosis (MS). Elayne is a 67-year-old grandmother and wants the right to have a physician-assisted death before she becomes trapped in her body.