Home / DEATH WITH DIGNITY: B.C. Civil Liberties Association takes on federal government over assisted dying

DEATH WITH DIGNITY: B.C. Civil Liberties Association takes on federal government over assisted dying

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
For immediate release

OTTAWA, ONTARIO – Today, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) will argue its landmark death with dignity case before Canada’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Canada. The BCCLA’s lawsuit argues that the federal laws that criminalize doctors for helping competent, seriously ill individuals who wish to hasten death are unconstitutional.

The federal government will argue that the ban on physician assisted dying should remain in place.

The BCCLA’s lawsuit argues that the laws are unconstitutional because they deny individuals the right to have control over choices that are fundamental to their lives and prevent unnecessary suffering. The lawsuit also claims that the laws restrict the liberty of physicians to deliver compassionate end of life care to incurably ill patients. The laws deny equality to the physically disabled by criminalizing a choice – the choice to end suffering through suicide — that is available to the able-bodied.

Grace Pastine, Litigation Director for the BCCLA said, “The overwhelming majority of Canadians believe that people should have the right to determine how much suffering to endure at the end of life and whether to seek a doctor’s assistance to hasten death if living becomes unbearable. Canadians who suffer from diseases such as terminal cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and multiple sclerosis should be able to choose a compassionate death. People want and deserve the right to make deeply personal decisions about their own bodies and their own lives. Now is the time for Canada’s highest court to decriminalize physician-assisted dying and give seriously ill patients the compassion and dignity they deserve.”

The BCCLA’s lawsuit will have far-reaching implications. The Supreme Court of Canada will determine whether provinces are constitutionally entitled to enact legislation that allows for physician-assisted dying and whether the federal laws that criminalize physician-assisted dying should be struck down for all Canadians. Quebec has already moved in that direction.

It has been twenty years since Canada’s highest court looked at the issue, dismissing a challenge to the law in the 1993 Sue Rodriguez case. In that case, the Court upheld the law in a divided 5-4 decision. Since that time, many countries including Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the states of Oregon and Washington, enacted legislation allowing assisted dying. These programs have been rigorously documented and studied, revealing that the fears are unfounded.

There have also been profound changes in Canada. In a recent poll, 86% of Canadians indicated they support a change to the laws. In June 2014, Quebec became the first province to adopt physician assisted dying legislation. The Canadian Medical Association adopted a resolution at its August 2014 annual meeting supporting the right of all physicians, within the bounds of the law, to follow their conscience when deciding whether to provide assisted dying.

Under current laws, it is legal to commit suicide. Patients also 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.

Grace Pastine, Litigation Director for the BCCLA said, “The fact is that the current laws have the perverse effect of forcing seriously ill Canadians to resort to violent methods or the “back alley.” Tragically, people will find ways to end lives that have become unbearable, even if that means choosing a violent, risky death. This could mean ordering prescriptions from Mexico or China, and hoping an overdose will lead to death instead of further impairment and brain damage. This is a heartbreaking and appalling state of affairs. Regulation of choice in dying, rather than the criminalization of doctors, provides the best protection for seriously ill Canadians.”

The court has scheduled one day for oral arguments in the case. The hearing will begin at 9:00 am on October 15th. The BCCLA will be the first party to argue.  After the hearing, the average length of time for the court to render a judgment on an appeal is six months.

Photographers: The plaintiffs and family members will be available for photographs before the hearing at 7:45 AM ET on the front steps of the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Read more about the case at https://bccla.org/our-work/death-with-dignity-case/

Charlotte Kingston, BCCLA media liaison: [email protected]