The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Feb. 6, 2015 that our current ban on physician-assisted death (PAD) is not in keeping with Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The ruling fails to mention terminal illness, but does specify disability, making this an issue on which disability advocates should have been consulted all along. Except for those who agree with physician-assisted death (PAD), such as MP Steven Fletcher, disabled people have been sidelined both in the media and elsewhere. Terminal illness and the right to refuse medical treatment—a right established in the courts years ago—dominated discussions.
The court ruling stipulates only that PAD be restricted to “a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life, and (2) has 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.”
Even phrases possibly referring to terminal illness could also apply to anyone with a permanent disability, depression or other long-term non-life-threatening conditions. Those requesting PAD do not have to be in physical pain. The ruling’s use of undefined terms such as “competent,” “grievous” and “suffering” leaves people living with depression or disability vulnerable to offers of PAD, instead of treatment and care.
And consent can be coerced. Many older people already fall prey to scam artists. If dependent on unscrupulous caregivers, they could easily be coerced into “choosing” PAD. If the topic has been disability all along, and yet people with those disabilities have been excluded from the debate, how could anyone believe that individuals will be making their own decisions?
The ruling considered only the court’s peculiar interpretation of the Charter’s Section 7: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person, and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” The court argued that Canadians seeking PAD might choose to live longer if they could access it at home, eliminating the need to travel abroad while they were still able.
Surely the originators of Section 7 did not have assisted death in mind when they wrote it. Since when did the “principles of fundamental justice” include perverting the practice of medicine into “death dealing”?
The ruling ignored Section 15 (1), which says, “Every individual is equal before and under the law, and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law . . . without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.” In ignoring this section, the Supreme Court has given us “choice” at the expense of equality.
In a Feb. 6, 2015 joint news release, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Canadian Association for Community Living said: “The judgment creates the potential for the most permissive and least restrictive criteria for assisted suicide in the world, putting persons with disabilities at serious risk.”
That would be more serious risk than in Belgium, which has openly euthanized children, depressed people, people who are nowhere near death and vulnerable people incapable of giving consent.
The ruling is clearly based on the assumption that, because nobody wants to become disabled, that if we do, we will—or should—want to die. The temptation to end our lives is supported by the strong cultural bias that sees our lives as burdensome, meaningless, worthless. In other words, “quality of life.”
Indeed, many newly disabled people do want to commit suicide, as the late Christopher Reeve did. Reeve’s wife begged him to wait two years before making a final decision. In that time, he found purpose in his changed life and decided to go on, as do most of us who live with “irremediable medical conditions” and disabilities. Do we really want to offer “dying with dignity,” rather than “living with dignity?”
Proponents of PAD like to cite data from jurisdictions where it has been legal for years. Such sources rely on scientifically invalid self-reporting by the very people abusing the guidelines. Why would anyone flouting safeguards report their actions in writing when they may not even admit their misdeeds to themselves?
In his Feb. 9, 2015 National Post column, “Crossing the Rubicon, Supreme Court seems eerily complacent about ramifications of assisted suicide,” Andrew Coyne wrote: “Once we have embraced the idea of suicide, not as a tragedy we should seek to prevent, but a right we are obliged to uphold; once the taking of life has been converted from a crime into a service . . . to be performed at public expense . . . how is it to be imagined that we could stop there?”
Parliament now has one year to either write a new law, invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the ruling, or make this into an election issue. Doing nothing makes the ruling law.
Ruth Enns has polio and glaucoma. She is a member of First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg and the author of A Voice Unheard: The Latimer Case and People with Disabilities, published in 2000.
See also: ‘Competent adults’ to get right-to-die