British Columbia

Federal appeal of assisted suicide ruling postponed in Vancouver

A federal government appeal of a doctor-assisted suicide case has been delayed for two weeks, but protesters in Vancouver still showed up to make their voices heard outside the court on Monday morning.

Lower court ordered government to rewrite laws govering assisted suicide

Assisted suicide debate outside court

CBC News Vancouver at 6

8 years ago
Protesters from both sides of the right-to-die debate rallied in downtown Vancouver 2:23

A federal government appeal of a doctor-assisted suicide case has been delayed for two weeks, but protesters in Vancouver still showed up to have their voices heard outside the court on Monday morning. 

The adjournment was granted because one of the government lawyers is ill. The case is expected to resume in the B.C. Court of Appeal on March 18.

The federal government is appealing a decision by Justice Lynn Smith that struck down a longtime law and opened the door for terminally ill people to end their lives with the help of a doctor.

Smith ordered Parliament to rewrite the legislation around the emotionally charged issue, and granted an exemption to lead plaintiff Gloria Taylor — who has since died.

Taylor suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (known as ALS or motor neurone disease) and said she wanted a doctor's help to die so she wouldn't have to deal with the prolonged suffering of her incurable disease. 

Her case has been represented by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. 

Disabled opponents fear impact

One of the protesters outside B.C.'s highest court on Monday was Norm Kunc, who believes doctor-assisted suicide could greatly impact people with disabilities.  The 53-year-old suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Hoisting a sign that read "legalizing the right to die fosters the duty to die," Kunc said he knows that sometimes when people give him a quick glance while crossing the street, they're likely to make some assumptions about his quality of life.

"I know that anyone listening to me right now would never say, 'He should die.' But they're saying that because they can hear my voice," he said.

Gloria Taylor died last October of complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, after fighting for the right to an doctor-assisted suicide. (CBC)

"But what happens if I were to have a stroke — to be in the hospital where I could not speak? Is it feasible that a nurse or a doctor might come and see me and say, 'His life isn't worth living?"'

Kunc was joined by several dozen other people carrying signs both condemning and praising the legal possibility of the right to die.

Before the delay was announced, another opponent of doctor-assisted suicide said he understood people who support the ruling want more control over the way their life will end.

But Will Johnston, with the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C., said he believes they are naive to suggest new guidelines will prevent abuse.

"For the same reason we rejected capital punishment, we should be rejecting anything which could put innocent people at risk. We think this is a serious public safety issue," he said.

Safeguards working, say advocates

However, Wanda Morris, with a group called Dying with Dignity, said the judge concluded that safeguards are working in other places around the world that allow assisted suicide.

"I believe that those who are opposing us are misreading the evidence and actually that many of them have a theological agenda and they are mis-stating the facts to support something that's actually quite different," she said.

The ideal outcome for the case would be the creation of legislation that allows mentally competent adults the choice to end their life if they are suffering grievously and get assistance from a medical professional, she said.

Experts on both sides of the issue have said that after a ruling comes down in B.C.'s high court the case could still go to the Supreme Court of Canada for a final decision.

Shelly Hunter was holding a sign that simply stated, "I'm here because of Dad."

"I didn't like his death," she said, noting the 81-year-old was suffering dementia when he died about a year ago.

"It prompted me to start on this journey of, 'If it were to happen to me, [I would want to] have a good death."