In 1993, Sue Rodriguez drew Canadians’ attention to the issue of medically-assisted death by bringing her fight to the Supreme Court. The Court turned her down. In the early ‘90s Switzerland was the only Western democracy to permit assisted death, but in the past two decades, we've seen a dramatic shift both legally and culturally toward doctor-assisted death.
Since then, medically-assisted death has become legal in many areas, including The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Colombia as well as five American states. The concept has found increasing support in Canada as well, with 84 per cent of us supporting medically-assisted death in a 2014 poll.
Changing attitudes and precedents led Canada to revise its laws — 20 years after Rodriguez’s battle — first with Quebec’s Bill 52 in 2014 and then with the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that medically-assisted death would no longer be illegal in Canada, and that it was unconstitutional to prohibit physicians from assisting in the consensual death of another person. CBC's Firsthand tells the story of some of the first Canadians to consider the option on Road to Mercy. Here are the key cases over years that shaped the debate and made the new legislation possible:
1993: Sue Rodriguez asks, “Who owns my life?”
Rodriguez took her case to the Supreme Court in 1993, two years after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Rodriguez argued that the laws prohibiting assisted suicide violated her Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person — or, as she put it, “If I cannot give consent to my death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” She lost her battle in a close decision, with a 5-4 ruling against her. She committed suicide in 1994, thanks to an anonymous doctor who administered a lethal dose of secobarbital.
1997: Robert Latimer kills his young daughter, Tracy
Saskatchewan farmer Latimer gained the sympathy of many Canadians when he went to trial for killing his disabled daughter, Tracy, in 1993. Tracy had cerebral palsy, which resulted in violent seizures, several surgeries, being unable to talk or walk, and constant pain. Most Canadians supported Latimer getting a lenient sentence, and many also thought mercy killings should be legal. Disability groups, however, worried that a light sentence could devalue the lives of disabled people. Latimer was sentenced to two years less a day.
1998: Dr. Maurice Généreux is the first doctor found guilty for assisting suicide
Généreux became the first doctor in North America to go to jail for performing physician-assisted death after prescribing lethal doses of sleeping pills to two HIV-positive men. One of them, Mark Jewitt, survived after taking the pills when a friend found him — and is still alive today. Généreux was sentenced to two years less a day and lost his licence to practice medicine.
2007: Dr. Ramesh Kumar Sharma is convicted
Ramesh Kumar Sharma provided a 92-year-old woman in a nursing home with a lethal amount of pills, which were later found by a nurse. Sharma, who was a GP in Vernon, B.C., was convicted of two years less a day and lost his licence.
2008: Stéphan Dufour is the first Canadian tried for assisted suicide
Dufour, a 30-year-old Quebecer, stood trial for helping his uncle, Chantal Maltais, kill himself. Dufour put a dog collar, rope and chains in a closet, which his uncle, who had had polio and was in a wheelchair, used to kill himself. Dufour was the first Canadian ever to be tried for assisted suicide. In his tearful testimony, he described his uncle’s mental state, saying, “He asked me every day to help him commit suicide…I didn't want to do it, but I wasn't able to take it anymore.” His case ended in a not-guilty verdict.
2015: Kay Carter and Gloria Taylor change the law
Kay Carter, who had degenerative spinal stenosis, and Gloria Taylor, who suffered from ALS, brought a case to the Supreme Court that argued the laws against physician-assisted death discriminated against them as disabled people, as they couldn’t enlist help to commit suicide, while an able-bodied person could do it themselves. In 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Canadians should have the right to medically-assisted death under certain situations, making it legal for doctors to do so, and giving the government a year to create legislation around that.
In January 2016, the first known case of medically-assisted death happened in Quebec; since then thousands have been performed across the country. In 2018, three expert panel reports from the Council of Canadian Academies looked at the possibility of extending MAID to mature minors, people with psychiatric conditions and those making requests in advance.
CBC's Firsthand Road to Mercy tells the story of Canadians who considered the option.