Supreme Court of Canada Rules on Physician Assisted Suicide

The long awaited ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada regarding the legality of physician-assisted suicide came down today. The court ruled unanimously that a competent adult person will no longer be prohibited by the Criminal Code from seeking assistance in ending his or her life.

The justices found that the prohibition on physician assisted dying infringes Section 7 of the Charter, which protects the right to life, liberty and security of the person, in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

The court’s reasoning was that because a person may see the quality of life, and abilities to act without help, diminish to the point where he or she may no longer be able to commit suicide when life becomes intolerable, that person may feel forced to end his or her life early.

The court said:
“The appeal (of the BC Supreme Court ruling) is allowed. We would issue the following declaration, which is suspended for 12 months:
Section 241 (b) and s. 14 of the Criminal Code unjustifiably infringe s. 7 of the Charter and are of no force or effect to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for 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.”

The suspension of the declaration of invalidity for 12 months is meant to allow Parliament to enact replacement legislation, should it choose to do so.

What does this mean for the average person? At this point, it only means that you should think about this new option and discuss the matter with those close to you. Nothing will actually change for a year.

One thing that should be made very clear is that physician assisted suicide is not the same as euthanasia. It does not seem likely that you will be able to give advance instructions to an alternate decision maker in a living will or representation agreement. It may also not be something that you will be able to specify in an Advance Directive.

My belief is that Parliament will enact very restrictive legislation limiting the ability to request physician assisted suicide to those people who are competent at the time the request is made, and that the request may only be made once the suffering has already become intolerable.  Doctors will be able to decide whether they wish to perform the proceedure or not.

It will be necessary for each province to amend its legislation such as health care consent laws and the laws governing the giving of advance directives and appointment of alternate decision makers.

The issue of physician assisted suicide in Canada is far from over, and we will be following further developments. If you have any questions about how this may impact your end-of-life planning, please contact us to discuss your current options.

About Maria Holman

I am a lawyer with over 28 years of experience in drawing up wills, trusts and estate plans, helping clients with probate and estate administrations and advising business owners and families about planning for the future. You can find me at Webster Hudson & Coombe LLP in Vancouver, BC
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