The B.C. Court of Appeal is expected to release its ruling on Thursday on a controversial and historic case about the right to die.

Last year, ALS patient Gloria Taylor of Kelowna, B.C., won a landmark case when a B.C. Supreme Court judge declared Canada's laws against doctor-assisted suicide unconstitutional.

The judge concluded the Criminal Code provisions violate the Charter of Rights and Freedom and are too broad.

But the federal government is appealing that ruling, saying the law protects vulnerable people.

The debate over assisted suicide regained prominence after Dr. Donald Low, a Toronto microbiologist who helped ease public concern during the 2003 SARS crisis, made a plea for assisted suicide in a posthumous video.

Low was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer seven months ago and died Sept. 18. In the video, Low says he would have wanted to have the option of assisted suicide, which is legal in other countries, but not in Canada.

"I'm worried about how it's going to end. It's never going to get better; I'm going to die," he says in the video. "What worries me is how I'm going to die."

Following the release of the video, Manitoba Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who is a quadriplegic, came out in favour of assisted suicide on Power and Politics with Evan Solomon. Fletcher's view is not supported by the government.

Earlier this year, the Quebec government tabled Bill 52. If passed, the bill would mean that a doctor who receives the repeated consent of a patient could administer medication to cause death. If the bill passes, it would be the first legislation of its kind in Canada.

Those in favour of the legalization of assisted suicide believe that individuals should be able to control the timing and circumstances of their own death. Opponents say that if the practice were legalized, it could force vulnerable people to do it in order to ease the financial burden of caring for them.

It is currently illegal in Canada to aid or counsel suicide. Assisting suicide is an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Paloma Aguilar, a spokesperson for justice minister Peter MacKay, said last month that the government has no intention of re-opening the debate on assisted suicide.

Here’s a look at some of the key terms in the right-to-die debate.

Euthanasia

A common definition of euthanasia is "painlessly killing to relieve suffering." But the exact meaning of this phrase remains up for interpretation.

Euthanasia is often confused with assisted suicide. In the case of euthanasia, a doctor or other medical professional performs the final act that intentionally causes a patient’s death — for example, by administering a fatal needle shot.

Euthanasia falls into three sub-categories:

  • Voluntary euthanasia: having the direct consent of the patient.
  • Non-voluntary euthanasia: the consent of the patient is unavailable, such as in the case of children.
  • Involuntary euthanasia: the act is done against the will of the patient.

Assisted suicide

What distinguishes assisted suicide from euthanasia is that the patient performs the last act. In this instance, a doctor may provide drugs for the purpose of causing death, but it is the patient that ultimately administers them.

A doctor may insert a needle in the patient’s vein, but if it is the patient that triggers the fatal injection, it is considered assisted suicide.

If a physician provides this type of aid, it is conventionally called "doctor-assisted suicide."

Withdrawal of life support

Withdrawal of life support, such as turning off the ventilator at the family's request, is normally not considered euthanasia.