The Supreme Court of Canada says it will hear an appeal by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) that could grant terminally ill Canadians the right to assisted suicide.
The case seeks to allow seriously and incurably ill but mentally competent adults the right to receive medical assistance to hasten death under specific safeguards.
Lawyer Grace Pastine, who will argue the case for the BCCLA, said Thursday's decision to hear the appeal is a victory for those who support the right to to die with dignity.
"I'm feeling great now. This is an enormous relief, and I'm just so happy that now there will be an opportunity to argue this very important case in front of the Supreme Court of Canada," Pastine told CBC News on Thursday morning.
Several witnesses in the case are very ill and the BCCLA applied to have it expedited. But the high court rejected that, and as is customary, gave no reasons.
That means the hearing to determine the future of assisted suicide in Canada will likely take place in the fall.
Federal government backs ban
Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay's office issued a statement on the decision, saying the government supports the existing prohibitions on assisted suicide in the Criminal Code.
"Assisted suicide is an emotional and divisive issue for many Canadians. It is our government’s position that the Criminal Code provisions prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia are in place to protect all persons, including those who are most vulnerable in our society," said the statement from McKay.
"The Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged the state interest in protecting human life and upheld the constitutionality of the existing legislation 20 years ago in the Rodriguez decision. Furthermore, in April 2010, a large majority of parliamentarians voted not to change these laws, which is an expression of democratic will on this topic."
Case launched by terminally ill women
The case was launched in 2011 by the BCCLA and two women, Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor, with intractable and progressive diseases.
In 2012, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the Criminal Code of Canada provisions against assisted dying violate the rights of the gravely ill, and gave Parliament one year to rewrite the laws.
The court also granted Taylor the right to an assisted suicide, making her the only Canadian to win the legal right to get a doctor's help to die.
Taylor eventually died in 2012, without assistance, from her degenerative neurological illness, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
But the federal government appealed the B.C. Supreme Court decision, and the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the lower court's ruling in October 2013 and upheld the ban, stating it was bound by the Supreme Court of Canada's 20-year-old Rodriguez decision.
The BCCLA then asked the top court to hear the appeal, arguing criminal laws that deny seriously ill Canadians the right to choose an assisted death are unconstitutional, and the issue is of profound national importance.