For immediate release
OTTAWA, ONTARIO (December 9, 2015) – Today, on Wednesday, December 9, 2015, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) filed legal arguments in the Supreme Court of Canada responding to the federal government’s request for a six-month delay to respond to the court’s landmark ruling on doctor-assisted dying. The BCCLA opposes the extension. In the alternative it, asks the court that if any extension is granted, patients who qualify under the court’s ruling should not be forced to wait in suffering. They should be given permission to proceed with a physician-assisted death under individual court applications during the extension period.
The BCCLA is the civil liberties watchdog responsible for launching the case. Earlier this year, the court unanimously ruled that Canadians suffering unbearably with a grievous, irremediable medical condition have the right to seek a compassionate death with the assistance of a doctor.
The Supreme Court delayed the effect of its ruling for 12 months, to give Parliament and the provincial legislatures time in which they could choose to enact legislative guidelines upholding the right of patients to die with dignity. The judgment is set to come into effect on February 6, 2016. The court made it clear that Parliament and the provincial legislatures could choose not to enact any legislation.
In an affidavit filed with the court, Elayne Shapray of Vancouver, B.C. who suffers from MS stated, “Six months may not seem like a lot of time to some people – to me, every second of every day is weighted with suffering and six month feels like an eternity. Yet, I am at the same time well aware that six months may also exceed the length of my remaining life span. During those six months, I will suffer, but I may also die the kind of death that I dread, the kind of death that I have spent the last four years supporting the legal fight for the right to choose against.”
Grace Pastine, Litigation Director for the BCCLA said: “It’s no surprise that the previous government’s complete failure to respond diligently to the court’s decision constricted the new government’s timeline. But Canadians have a right to expect that the work of the government will be continuous, even if there’s a general election. For that reason we’re opposed to an extension. But if an extension is granted, we are asking the court for an exemption for Canadians who are currently suffering unbearably. Madam Justice Lynn Smith, the trial judge in this case at the B.C. Supreme Court, granted an exemption to Gloria Taylor who suffered from ALS. The exemption allowed Gloria to make an application for an assisted death to a court if her suffering became unbearable. Having that choice gave Gloria great peace of mind in her final days. Madam Justice Smith’s order could serve as a guide. If the Supreme Court grants the government’s request for an extension, we hope the Supreme Court will provide suffering Canadians with a way to access their right to a dignified and compassionate death.”
Pastine added: “Further delay will mean that critically ill Canadians will continue to suffer against their wishes. There will be no negative results if the ruling comes into effect on February 6. If there is no government action by that time, doctors will simply exercise their medical judgment about who qualifies for assistance in dying. A number of provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, the medical bodies that regulate doctors, have already issued guidelines on the practice. The Supreme Court provided doctors with clear guidance. It specified that its ruling applies only to individuals who have “grievous” and “irremediable” medical conditions. The patient must clearly request to end his or her life. And the ruling only applies to mentally competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering. It is open to Parliament to legislate at any time after February 6. There’s no need for further delay.”
The BCCLA notes that requiring individual applications to a court to access a physician-assisted death would be an onerous requirement for critically ill people. It should only be used as a as a stop-gap measure during the temporary situation of a constitutional exemption being granted.