‘Competent adults’ to get right-to-die

Supreme Court weighs personal autonomy vs. sanctity of life

Will Braun | Senior Writer

The Supreme Court of Canada's February decision to legalize physician-assisted dying shifted the moral landscape in Canada.

Three-quarters of Canadians welcome that shift, but some people of faith don't. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), which includes Mennonite Church Canada as a member, intervened in the case and was “deeply disappointed” by the outcome. [http://www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/Assisted-suicide-What-next]

In a unanimous decision, the court said it was forced to “balance competing values of great importance.” On one hand stood the “autonomy and dignity of a competent adult who seeks death as a response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition,” and on the other, “the sanctity of life and the need to protect the vulnerable.”

Writing about the decision in a column in The Globe and Mail, renowned ethicist Margaret Somerville said some people believe that quality of life can diminish to the point where assisted death is justified. Others see “all humans as having dignity just because they are human,” and they believe “respect for life requires that we do not intentionally kill another human being or help them kill themselves.”

The matter raises intricate questions:

  • Are some lives so unbearable that their end is justified?
  • If such an allowance were formalized in law and practice, would it necessarily undermine a general societal value one might call respect for life?
  • Does society have the right to force people to continue suffering?
  • Does society have the right to sanction the willful ending of a life?

The Feb. 6, 2015 ruling struck down a 21-year-old decision that made it an indictable offence under the Criminal Code to aid or abet a person in committing suicide. The current ruling affirms the essential intent of that earlier decision—“to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness”—but says such protection can be ensured without a blanket prohibition.

The blanket prohibition, it ruled, unjustifiably infringed on the Charter rights of other people—specifically, people who have a “grievous and irremediable medical condition [including an illness, disease or disability] that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”

The new ruling says that such a person has a right to a physician-assisted death if she or he is a “competent adult person,” and “clearly consents to the termination of life.” This applies both to a doctor helping a person end his or her own life—for example, by providing medication, but not actually administering it—and also to cases in which the doctor directly administers the medication that ends a life. The latter practice is generally referred to as euthanasia.

The court gave the federal government a year to come up with legislation to match the decision, including protections for vulnerable persons and provisions to accommodate physicians who do not wish to be involved in an assisted suicide. The Court said “nothing” in its ruling “would compel physicians to provide assistance in dying.”

Somerville said the court's ruling puts an individual's right to autonomy and self-determination ahead of the notion of sanctity of life.

Outspoken proponents of the decision—some with debilitating chronic illness—say they simply want to be able to decide when their lives are too unbearable to continue and they want to have a controlled, painless way to make the transition when the time comes. In some cases it will mean people will live longer, because previously they would have chosen to end their life while they were still physically capable of doing so on their own, while now they can have a doctor assist at a later stage.

Bruce Clemenger, president of the EFC, said, “Life is a gift from God which should be respected and protected through all its stages.” In a statement following the Supreme Court ruling, Clemenger said, “Care for the sick and elderly is part of God's call for Christians,” and, we “must not deliberately bring about their death.”

In an interview on 100 Huntley Street, Clemenger said the ruling contradicts the biblical commandment not to kill. He is urging Parliament to act quickly to bring in legislation that will make physician-assisted dying and euthanasia as rare as possible. He also believes that it is important to make palliative care as available as possible to Canadians, something he said in lacking now.

A Forum Research poll found that 78 percent of Canadians support the Supreme Court decision. Fifteen percent disapprove, while 7 percent expressed no opinion. The poll found that younger people, wealthier people, Quebecers, New Democrats and non-religious Canadians were most likely to support the decision, although even among Conservatives and Albertans approval stands at 71 percent.

The government has not said whether it will introduce legislation before the federal election, which is expected in October, well before the court's 12-month deadline.

See also: 

Court turns medicine into ‘death dealing’

A time to die: The place of faith in the face of death


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