The B.C. Court of Appeal, in a split decision issued Thursday, has affirmed the law against assisted suicide, in a controversial and historic right-to-die case.
The case involved ALS patient Gloria Taylor of Kelowna and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, who won a landmark ruling last year when a B.C. Supreme Court judge struck down the part of the Criminal Code that made doctor-assisted suicide illegal.
Taylor has since died from her degenerative neurological illness, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, but the civil liberties group fought on with several other plaintiffs after the federal government appealed the ruling.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against physician-assisted suicide two decades ago in a landmark case involving another B.C. resident, Sue Rodriguez.
The judge in Taylor's case reconsidered that decision, concluding that the prohibition on physician-assisted suicide violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for reasons not contemplated in the Rodriguez case.
But the federal government appealed, saying the law protects vulnerable people.
In furthering its stance, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association had argued that the evidence since Rodriguez "shows that appropriate and carefully tailored safeguards can be created to protect vulnerable individuals."
The B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the Rodriguez ruling, with two justices saying the lower court was bound by it and could not overturn it, and one dissenting.
"The societal consequences of permitting physician-assisted suicide in Canada — and indeed enshrining it as a constitutional right — are a matter of serious concern to many Canadians, and, as is shown by the evidence reviewed by the trial judge in this case, no consensus on the subject is apparent, even among ethicists or medical practitioners," Madam Justices Mary Newbury and Mary Saunders said in their judgment.
In his dissent, B.C. Chief Justice Lance Finch, who recently retired, said the Taylor cased raised novel issues of law under Section 7 of the Charter of Rights, which guarantees the right to life, liberty and security of the person.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has confirmed it will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, saying "for the moment, real people must suffer without the choice and dignity they deserve."
The group's lawyer Grace Pastine, who represents several plaintiffs in the effort to strike down the law, says they will continue to fight for the rights of the terminally ill.
Pastine said her clients believe the federal government has no place at the bedside of seriously ill Canadians who have made firm decisions about how they want to end their lives.
Will Johnston, with the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said his members are relieved by the court's decision and ventured that the Appeal Court judges obviously saw how allowing some forms of physician-assisted suicide could lead down a slippery slope.
Justice minister weighs in
In a statement issued by his press secretary Paloma Aguilar, Justice Minister Peter MacKay also defended the Appeal Court's ruling.
"The decision made today by the B.C. Court of Appeal reinforces our government’s view that the Criminal Code provisions that prohibit medical professionals, or anyone else, from counselling or providing assistance in a suicide, are constitutionally valid," he said.
"The laws surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are most vulnerable."
The family of a second woman, Kay Carter, who travelled to Switzerland more than three years ago to end her life, were also plaintiffs in the case.
Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, along with a handful of other European jurisdictions and a few U.S. states.
Last month, British cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who also has ALS, said people with terminal illnesses should be able choose to end their lives and receive help doing so, so long as safeguards are in place.