Today, the B.C. Supreme Court agreed to fast track a hearing for a Kelowna, B.C. woman with a terminal disease who wants to overturn Canada's right-to-die laws. Gloria Taylor, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease), is seeking the right to a doctor-assisted suicide. The case is one of two that are currently before the B.C. Supreme Court. Both come eighteen years after the Supreme Court of Canada denied Sue Rodriguez of Victoria, B.C., the right to an assisted suicide. In 1993, Rodriguez ended her own life with the help of a physician whose identity remains unknown. Back then, few were surprised when the Supreme Court of Canada said no to doctor-assisted death. But times have changed; obstacles that were insurmountable back then may not be anymore.
Gloria Taylor of Kelowna, British Columbia, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. It's a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system in which patients develop severe weakness and muscle wasting. ALS is a progressive, fatal disease in which most people affected die because they can no longer breathe. Some die of pneumonia.
There are several reasons why Canadians may be ready to reconsider the ban on doctor-assisted suicide.
The first reason has to do with the sheer number of Canadians affected by neurodegenerative diseases. Back in 1993, Sue Rodriguez was seen as having a unique and rare condition. And that is no less true today. According to the ALS Society of Canada, approximately 2,500-3,000 people in Canada are living with the disease.
But it's not the only neurodegenerative disease with a grim prognosis. Others include Huntington's, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. According to the World Health Organization, by 2040, all neurodegenerative diseases combined will surpass cancer as the second leading cause of death in Canada.
Instead of being rare, stories like those of Sue Rodriguez and Gloria Taylor will be commonplace. When that happens, people all around us will be clamoring for control over their destiny.
The second reason has to do with the kind of care people with neurodegenerative diseases have reason to expect. In her final Senate report on the future of palliative care in Canada, the Honourable Sharon Carstairs wrote that currently, 90% of Canadians could benefit from palliative care, but 70% do not have access. If we can't handle a trickle of patients today, you'd have to be an extraoridnary optimist to believe we'll be able to provide palliative care to a tsunami of people with neurodegerative diseases in the decades to come.
Some people choose suicide when they have an incurable disease and palliative care isn't available. Quebec is an illustrative example. People in that province harbour a well-justified suspicion that good care won't be there when they need it. The feeling is so commonplace that Denys Arcand made it the central plot of his Academy Award-winning 2003 film Les invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions). In the film, the main character Remy is snatched by his son from a hospital hidebound by bureaucratic rules, and is taken to an idyllic setting where he can be euthanized with heroin procured by a junkie with a heart of gold.
Support for euthanasia in Quebec has hovered at or near 80% in most recent surveys. That level of support is often greater than that seen in the rest of Canada. Last Fall and earlier this year, the National Assembly of Quebec's Select Committee on Dying with Dignity held public hearings on euthanasia. The hearings were among the most popular on record, a further indication of the level of engagement on this issue by people in Quebec.
If people in the rest of Canada conclude that home and hospital-based services won't be there when they need them, I predict support for euthanasia will build outside of Quebec as well.
The third reason why euthanasia might get past the courts this time is the fact that other countries have brought it out into the open. Since Sue Rodriguez took her case to the Supreme Court of Canada, the Netherlands became one of the first to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Switzerland's Criminal Code bans assisted suicide for "selfish" reasons but permits it provided the person who provides assistance can prove that he or she was "motivated by good intentions". A number of people have travelled to Switzerland from North America and elsewhere to have assisted suicide.
Add these factors up, and I think the courts might just give Gloria Taylor a different answer than the one they gave Sue Rodriguez eighteen years ago.