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Five times the courts and the federal government said Canadians do not, in fact, have a “right to die” with help

By Pieta Woolley

Don’t want life-support? No problem. Canadians have been legally allowed to refuse their own end-of-life interventions since 1990. Want to kill yourself? Also, fine. Suicide has been decriminalized since 1972.

But enlisting the medical system or a friend to deliver your death? That’s trickier.

Since the early 1980s, Canadian courts have waffled over the legality of assisted suicide. It’s now allowed — with various restrictions — in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Belgium, Luxembourg, Columbia and Netherlands. Until recently, though, it hadn't gained much traction here. While the February 2015 unanimous Supreme Court of Canada decision seems to offer some clarity to the “yes” side, it does so in the context of 25 years of legal flip-flops, including some equally clear “no's."

1. Legal baby steps — and three no’s.

In 1991, three separate bills supporting doctor-assisted suicide were introduced in the House of Commons. None made it to a vote.

2. Caught out in front of the law — and eight no’s 

Provincial courts have tried several cases involving individuals who assisted in suicides. Ultimately, the law was upheld although the sentences were near-universally quite light. They are an unnamed cancer patient who’s surgeon administered a lethal dose of drugs (1992); nurse Scott Matlaya, who “mercy killed” a terminally ill patient (1992); a physician who gave a patient drugs that killed him (1993); Dr. Maurice Genereaux, who gave suicide-inducing drugs to two non-terminal patients (1998); Marielle Houle, who helped kill her son (2006); Andre Bergeron, who helped kill his wife (2006); Robert Latimer, who killed his disabled daughter (2007); and Dr. Ramesh Sharma, who helped a 93-year-old kill herself (2007).

3. The most famous case — five big no’s

In 1993, Sue Rodriguez, who was living with ALS, brought her desire for a medically-assisted suicide to the Supreme Court of Canada. The court voted 5-4 against it. In 1994, just three years after she was first diagnosed, an anonymous physician helped her die at her request. 

4. The oddly quiet vote — 228 no’s

In 2010, Quebec MP Francine Lalonde brought Bill C-384, “An Act to Amend the Criminal Code: Right to Die with Dignity,” to the House of Commons, and it made it all the way to a vote at second reading. Then, it died 228-59. Remarkable is the list of those MPs who voted against this assisted suicide bill. They include Liberal Bob Rae, and both the NDP’s Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair.

5. In recent memory — two loud no’s

The “Carter case,” which won unanimously at the Supreme Court of Canada in February 2015, represented the third time the BC Civil Liberties Association pressed the issue in court (Both Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor have since died). In 2012, the Supreme Court of BC heard the case and ruled in favour of assisted suicide. The next year, the BC Court of Appeal overturned the ruling 2-1. Now, the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld it, and it’s in the hands of legislators. In the meantime, the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada is urging government to use the notwithstanding clause, which allows Parliament to override parts of the Charter.

Will we hear one more big “no” from the House of Commons, given that those mostly-the-same legislators voted against assisted suicide just five years ago? 

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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