The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a law that makes it a crime for physicians to assist in the death of individuals who are grievously ill. While the court’s unanimous decision pleases many Canadians, it alarms many others and leaves religious leaders and politicians in a most delicate position.
The court has ruled
that the existing law leaves people suffering from an irredeemable illness with a cruel choice. “[They] cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering,” the court said. The judges added that the law violates the charter rights and is therefore unconstitutional. As such, the court gave the federal government one year to draft a new law, and if Ottawa does not do so, there will be no law in place to regulate physician-assisted death.
Of course, faith groups have long argued that life is a gift from God and that neither people who are ill nor those around them have the right to decide when life should end. They also warn lawmakers of a “slippery slope,” arguing that vulnerable people will come under pressure to choose death rather than burden their loved ones or society at large.
But the trial judge in the initial challenge to the law examined other
jurisdictions where assisted death was available and concluded that the
risks to vulnerable people were minimal. The Supreme Court judges
agreed: “[The evidence] also supports her finding that a properly
administered regulatory regime is capable of protecting the vulnerable
from abuse or error.” So although judges in Canada don't look at laws
based on hermeneutics, the court clearly considered moral and ethical
dimensions. “An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable
medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy,”
they said. “The prohibition [on physician-assisted death] denies people
in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily
integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty.”
Meanwhile, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada expressed “deep” disappointment with the judgment
said that the court had decided that in some circumstances, “the
killing of a person will be legal.” The Catholic bishops also expressed their dismay
saying that "helping someone to commit suicide is neither an act of
justice or mercy, nor it is part of palliative care.” Although the
United Church of Canada made no formal statement
Moderator Gary Paterson wrote that “[the law] should change in order to
allow physician-assisted dying in circumstances that meet carefully
defined criteria.” The Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Fred
Hilz, also announced
that his church is appointing a task force to guide its discussions on physician-assisted death.
all of these faith groups stressed the importance of improved
palliative care, too. Although such care will not eliminate the requests
for physician-assisted death by some people who are gravely ill, the
consensus is that good palliative care makes all the difference in the
quality of life during one's final stages.
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