TORONTO, ON February 6 2015 – The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) warns of the dangers of a new era of “suicide relativism” in Canada, following the Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision in Carter to strike down the Criminal Code provisions against physician assisted suicide.
The Supreme Court’s ruling now leaves legislatures and provincial health disciplinary mechanisms to sort out the messy business of competing conscience claims, let alone the parameters of “medical aid in dying”.
By this decision, the Court has re-asserted its claim to the title “Policy Maker of the Year”, as recognized by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute in December, 2014. The Supreme Court has moved our country from a position where suicide was opposed outright, to a jurisdiction where suicide is to be made available on request, subject to future unknown conditions.
The Court overruled its previous decision from 1993 in Rodriguez, in which the same provisions of the Criminal Code were upheld, by a 5-4 majority, asserting in today’s ruling that the law and factual matrix have changed in the past 22 years.
The Court failed to mention that nine different motions or legislative attempts have been raised in Parliament in that timeframe, with six separate votes on the issue, all of which rejected efforts to change the law, recognizing the risks to the most highly vulnerable. In fact, in 2011 and in 2012 Parliament gave its near unanimous support for a national anti-suicide prevention policy. The Supreme Court has now undercut such legislative enactments.
Given that history, Parliament will need to give serious consideration to the Charter’s notwithstanding clause, to allow further time for serious reflection on the merits of what has been introduced as a new regime in Canada. A one year suspension in an election year is unreasonable.
While the Court has suspended its decision for one year to allow legislatures and provincial health care professional Colleges time to consider legislative changes, that timeframe may be insufficient to allow all of the various public institutions to address the challenging demands involved.
The CCRL sought that clear language be provided by the Court to assert the primacy of conscientious rights of healthcare professionals. The Supreme Court stepped back from making any such pronouncement, preferring to allow a future “reconciliation” of competing rights claims.
Such concerns are not limited to healthcare professionals. Chaplains, lawyers, and other counsellors will be confronted with how to deal with requests for assistance on suicide in the months ahead.
The Court has struck down these provisions of the Criminal Code with severe limitations on any new provisions to re-criminalize particular forms of assisted suicide. The court has asserted that any future law must accept situations based on irremediable medical conditions and where there may be intolerable suffering. In its reasons, the Court stated, “We make no pronouncement on other situations where physician‑assisted dying may be sought”. However, as has been seen in other jurisdictions, efforts to impose safeguards rarely limit the availability of assisted suicide. By its own language, the Supreme Court leaves open the likelihood of further challenges to any draft legislation.
For example, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association supported the decriminalization of these provisions primarily on the basis of personal autonomy – i.e. if a competent patient sought to be killed, the medical professional should assist, regardless of the underlying medical condition.
In the state of Washington, research has shown that the introduction of physician assisted suicide quickly is enlarged over time, such that individuals who may have years to live are encouraged to take their life prematurely. Assisted suicide regimes lead to abuse of the aged, especially from those who stand to inherit. Will the next push be to expand euthanasia to non-terminal individuals, or the allowance of individuals other than doctors to prescribe death drugs?
The Court also awarded the BC Civil Liberties Association full indemnity costs, such that taxpayers are obliged to pay what will likely exceed $1 million for this challenge at three court levels.
The focus of section 241 of the Criminal Code is on the person who assists in a suicide. The CCRL’s intervention emphasised that most Canadian healthcare providers consider physician-assisted death immoral or unethical for reasons of science, conscience or religion. These healthcare providers may now be confronted by demands that they directly or indirectly participate in what they consider to be immoral actions.
Medical Colleges in Saskatchewan and Ontario are currently in the process of addressing such demands, including the contentious issue of mandatory referral by objecting physicians to another doctor, which the CCRL has asserted requires an objecting physician to participate in “wrong”. Other provincial Colleges have already mandated such referrals, exposing doctors to professional disciplinary charges. Can migration from the profession in Canada be far behind?
At a minimum, the CCRL asserts the need for robust protection for the freedoms of everyone who declines or opposes physician-assisted death, or refuses to refer patients for such procedures, for reasons of conscience or religion.
About the CCRL
Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) (www.ccrl.ca) assists in creating conditions within which Catholic teachings can be better understood, cooperates with other organizations in defending civil rights in Canada, and opposes defamation and discrimination against Catholics on the basis of their beliefs. The CCRL was founded in 1985 as an independent lay organization with a large nationwide membership base. The CCRL is a Canadian non-profit organization entirely supported by the generosity of its members.
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