Physician-Assisted Dying – Supreme Court Decision Impacts on Québec

Physician-Assisted Dying – Supreme Court Decision Impacts on Québec

Quebec City (Quebec) 7 February 2015 – Delivering an unanimous judgement yesterday morning at 9:45AM, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the criminal ban on physician-assisted dying was unconstitutional, and although the case originated in British Columbia, it’s very likely that the impact of the decision will be strongly felt in Québec.

Until yesterday, sections 14 and 241(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada made it illegal for anyone to help another commit suicide, including physicians giving end of life care.  Upon delivering its judgement yesterday in the case of Carter v Canada, the Supreme Court ruled that these provisions violated sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which assure all Canadians of the right to life, liberty, and security of the person (section 7) and to equal protections regardless of disability (section 15).  Although the judgement acknowledged the importance of protecting vulnerable people from being pressured into physician-assisted suicide, it also found that a sweeping ban was too broad a countermeasure to be justified in a free and democratic society.  The Court’s ruling, which will allow physicians to give life-ending treatments to severely ill consenting adults under very specific circumstances, will come into effect in 12 months unless Parliament modifies the Criminal Code to comply with the ruling earlier.

Before Carter v Canada, the Supreme Court had already ruled on the issue of physician-assisted suicide in the 1993 decision in Rodriguez v British Columbia, in which the Supreme Court determined that the ban on physician-assisted suicide was constitutionally valid in a narrow 5-to-4 split.  The only judge still sitting on the Supreme Court since that decision is current Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, who was among the dissenting judges in the 1993 case.  This case, however, is unanimous, and unlike most rulings where the majority simply concurs with the judgement as written by one judge, this decision was simply signed “The Court” – indicating all judges contributed to the judgement and lend their full agreement.

The decision is yet another upset in a long-running string of Supreme Court rulings contrary to the positions taken by the ruling Conservative Party of Canada, which staunchly opposes physician-assisted dying.  Justice Minister Peter MacKay stated that the Harper government would take the time to review the decision.

In Québec, however, the ruling will likely be met much more favourably.  The decision comes hot off the heels of Québec’s Act Respecting End-of-Life Care, passed less than a year ago by the National Assembly.  The act, which MNAs from all parties overwhelmingly supported in a free vote, asserted the right of terminally ill patients to choose life-ending treatments.  Although healthcare services are a provincial matter, the right to physician-assisted death was still prohibited by the Criminal Code.  Now that the Supreme Court has declared the provisions unconstitutional, physician-assisted death for terminally ill and suffering patients should soon become a reality in Québec.

The allowance for physician-assisted death has not been without very vocal opponents throughout the debate and hearings.  Some groups have voiced their concern that allowing for medically-induced death will disincentivise research and application of alternative palliative treatments, expose terminally ill patients to pressure for a premature death, and pave the way for cost-benefit decisions to override the right to life.  Proponents of the right, including Québec lawmakers and the Supreme Court, rather come to the conclusion that the same safeguards that ensure patients are not treated against their consent have been shown to be effective protections in jurisdictions that allow for physician-assisted suicide, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Colombia, and the US states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana.

Categories: Politics

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image. He has an engineering degree from Université Laval and is currently a law student at McGill University.

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