Supreme Court of British Columbia upholds physician assisted suicide

In a landmark judgment – admittedly one that may be appealed – the Supreme Court of British Columbia has struck down a law against physician assisted suicide and required the legislature to enact something less restrictive. You can find a brief discussion of the case here, in The Globe and Mail … which has also published an editorial in support of the outcome.

In Carter v. Canada, the court has, in particular, referred to the extensive report of a committee chaired by my friend and collaborator, Udo Schuklenk, which found, among other things, that vulnerable people are not especially at risk in a regime that permits physician assisted suicide (with appropriate regulation). The report was admitted into evidence, though not relied on for its conclusions about the efficacy of safeguards in other jurisdictions (there was other evidence relating to this, and some authors of the report were involved in the case).

Udo is quoted in The Globe and Mail:

Dr. Schuklenk, a bioethicist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said the judge in Friday’s ruling clearly took into account the panel’s finding that there is no evidence that vulnerable people would be at appreciable risk of abuse if euthanasia was decriminalized. “If there is no appreciable risk, surely autonomy-based considerations mean people should be able to make these sorts of choices towards the end of their lives and have these choices respected,” he said.

The full judgment will repay careful study, and there is still the prospect of appeal. I am not, in this brief post, going to assess the legal correctness of the reasoning or the prospects for success of any appeal. I only wish to say that it’s important news that could, at least outside of Canada, get lost amongst all the day-to-day issues that trouble us. From my point of view, it’s great news, but again I don’t intend to develop the argument for physician assisted suicide here. If you’re interested in these questions, do have a close look at the court’s judgment.

Russell’s Amazon author page

  1. in a regime that permits physician assisted suicide (with appropriate regulation).

    I’m glad of that bracketed afterthought, it reassures me that Granny won’t be parted from her money by the hovering vultures of her family who cannot wait for her to push off. It’s hard to decide whether it is a result of the innocence of those that imagine that it could be regulated and the malevolence of those who don’t care.

  2. It is an interesting ruling. It should be pointed out that independent of the risk posed to seniors by the potential for elder abuse, to restrict their rights (i.e. what medical treatment their legitimately entitled to because of the illegitimate actions of others, is to make the victim pay for the wrongs of the abuser.

  3. michael reidy

    Benjamin:
    The potential for abuse of this ‘law’ is overwhelming. Therefore it is a bad law in consequetialist terms alone.

  4. Terribly difficult legal problem. I’ve seen the current law prolong suffering unnecessarily: I also accept that it opens a door – no matter how small – to abuse.

    Frankly from my experience, and discussions with medical staff, the line between ‘pain relief’ and ‘lethal dose’ in many cases narrows and eventually overlaps. Depending on the conscience of the doctor, I suspect that overdosing is more common than underdosing.

    Very hard situation to legislate for.

  5. As far as the underlying issue goes, it seems plain that people ought to be allowed to do as they please with their bodies, ‘harm no other’ caveats aside.

    Where I live, you can’t even talk to a counselor about suicidal feelings without the threat of forced intervention; how many people choose not to talk to anyone because of that?

  6. Steve Merrick

    The general view seems to be that it’s a just and fair law, which might be impractical because it’s so difficult to prevent widespread abuse. I quite agree.

  7. I’m curious what this risk of “widespread abuse” is.

    I’m assuming that the possibility of abuse exists only when someone other than the person to be euthanized is putting in the request.

    Presumably, this only occurs when someone’s legal agency is compromised due to sufficient cognitive impairment.

    So, to be clear, are we worrying that people in this position are essentially at risk of being murdered by their guardians?

    Let’s say that there is, in fact, a significant risk of this. It still seems that the harm created by preventing responsible people from ending their own lives is greater than the potential harm of abuse in cases of people who are impaired agents with cold-blooded families.

  8. michael reidy

    Young and perfectly healthy people kill themselves all the time. They come to believe that the world would be better off without them. End of life care can be very expensive and there may be very little extension of life. Family members seeing the erosion of their expectations may plant the idea that there is little point in going on. Really this sort of scenario writes itself. What of the harm done to the morale of a doctor who administers death. Does this not go against all that he was trained for?

  9. Michael,

    I like your question about the role of a doctor. I think we would both agree that the primary role of a doctor is to promote health in their patients.

    Some patients, however, cannot be returned to health with current technology.

    In these cases, I see the role of a doctor as to reduce suffering. Once again, though, there is a limit to what current technology can and cannot do.

    Imagine someone suffering so badly that the needed dosage of morphine to ease their pain would be fatal. For them, euthanasia is a gift of mercy.

    I don’t see this as counter to the role of a doctor at all.

Leave a Comment


NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>