St. John Paul II coined the phrase, “the culture of death”. On October 15, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) was engaged in setting out some preliminary ground rules for the advancement of such a regime, at least in respect to the legalization of assisted suicide in Canada.

The issue before the court was whether section 241 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits assisting in another’s suicide, was unconstitutional. The challenge was a direct confrontation with the Court’s previous 5-4 ruling in the case of Sue Rodriguez, from 1993, in which the court upheld the provision.

As has been noted by many commentators, including former Crown lawyers, in the years since Rodriguez, prosecutions under this provision have been infrequent, as the police and Crown counsel are hesitant to proceed with criminalization of individuals or family members at the time of the “acceleration” of another elderly family member’s death. In fact, Sue Rodriguez herself was understood to have received assistance in her suicide in 1994 from an unknown physician, in the purported presence of then MP, Svend Robinson. No charges were ever laid.

The Court’s decision in the case of Lee Carter will likely be as significant in the area of assisted suicide, as was the Morgentaler decision regarding abortion in 1988.

I participated in the hearing for an intervener group, made up of the Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL), the Faith and Freedom Alliance (FFA), and the Protection of Conscience Project. The CCRL and the FFA supported the federal government’s opposition to decriminalization. Our intervention was particularly focused on the impact to health care and the conscience rights of health care workers, if the law were to be struck down.

I fear that it is likely that a variant of physician assisted suicide will be allowed in Canada in 2015. The federal government may be given an opportunity to consider a new law, as it was afforded in the case of prostitution in the Bedford decision from December 2013, but that will have to await the court’s current ruling, expected to be released in the first half of 2015.

What may be less known in the reporting of the case was the advocacy of other interveners, seeking to have the court widen any restriction to physician assisted suicide from merely terminal competent patients relying upon persistent requests, or other purported safeguards, in favour of a wider personal autonomy, which would allow any individual to seek such a remedy from a doctor. On demand.

Canadians, especially those involved in health care, chaplaincy, or legal matters, will need to prepare for this new regime, should it come to pass next year. While abortion decisions often engage a minority of practising physicians, advanced directive issues arise in most family medicine or specialist practices (think of the need to discuss risks of surgeries, for example). Chaplains and lawyers will be confronted with how to deal with requests for what may become a legal demand in the months ahead.

Margaret Dore, a lawyer in the state of Washington, where assisted suicide is legal, is the president of Choice is an Illusion, a non-profit agency opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia. Based on her observations and research, the allowance for modest proposals for physician assisted suicide quickly are 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.   The next push will be to expand euthanasia to non-terminal individuals, or the allowance of individuals other than doctors to prescribe death drugs.

The SCC gave short attention to concerns over the inadequacy of safeguards, which have proven to be ineffective in other jurisdictions. Currently, there are inadequate protections afforded to health care workers from the professional obligation to refer a patient for such services, which we argued would establish a duty to do “wrong”, and for which the Court should be seriously concerned.

While certain disabled groups raise fears of the prospect of an easier route to one’s death, others, including MP Steven Fletcher, have argued the merits of allowing the availability of suicide for addressing physical and psychological suffering, so long as “safeguards” are incorporated.

The issue has been raised in Parliament on 9 occasions since 1993, and has been the subject of 6 separate votes, all of which maintained the current law. But the Court did not seem at all concerned over its role in dictating a new regime to our elected officials.

The permutations are currently unknown, but as was evident from observations at the Supreme Court of Canada, we will need to prepare for an expansion of such “services” in the not too distant future.


Phil Horgan, President
Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL)