2 Montrealers with degenerative diseases challenge medically assisted dying law

Two Montrealers with degenerative diseases are challenging both Canada's and Quebec's medically assisted dying laws.

Plaintiffs say federal and provincial laws don't respect 2015 Supreme Court ruling

Nicole Gladu, 71, and Jean Truchon, 49, are the latest people to challenge Canadian law that restricts access to medically assisted dying to those for whom death is 'reasonably foreseeable.' (Charles Contant/CBC)

Two Montrealers with degenerative diseases are challenging both Canada's and Quebec's doctor-assisted dying laws.

They say the laws are too limiting in their criteria of who can obtain medical assistance to die, which goes against their charter rights.

Jean Truchon, 49, and Nicole Gladu, 71, are the two plaintiffs in the first Quebec Superior Court challenge to the federal law, which requires that death be reasonably foreseeable for a patient to receive aid to die.

Their lawyer, Jean-Pierre Ménard, says the two suffer from serious and irremediable health problems that cause persistent and intolerable suffering. 

That's not enough to qualify for assisted death under the existing laws, Ménard said, but it does meet conditions set out in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that ordered the federal government to create assisted-dying legislation.

"It's absolutely deplorable that these people who meet the law's criteria — a serious and irremediable illness with intolerable suffering — need to go to court to have their rights met," Ménard said Wednesday morning at a news conference with the plaintiffs. 

'Happy it's being challenged'

Truchon and Gladu lived most of their lives independently, despite illnesses they've had since birth, in Truchon's case, and early childhood in Gladu's. 

But in the past five and 20 years respectively, their conditions have worsened to the point where they've lost almost all their autonomy. 

Nicole Gladu is pictured with lawyer Jean-Pierre Ménard, who is representing her and Jean Truchon. (CBC)

Ménard said Truchon, who has cerebral palsy, managed most of his life with only one functioning limb, his left arm, until he lost use of it in 2012.​

"A life in institutions is not for me. I've tasted what living for myself is like and since I've lost that, the little pleasures of everyday life are no longer enough for me," Truchon said in a statement read by his caregiver. 

"If I'm still alive today, it's because I've wanted to obtain the right to die with dignity through medical assistance."

Truchon, who grew visibly emotional as his statement was read, said he's thought of other ways to end his life, such as starving himself to death or throwing himself in front of a car or Metro train. 
But any other option would increase suffering for him and those around him, he said. "I wish to have the right to a gentle and dignified death."

'My body can't support me'

Gladu survived the 1949 polio epidemic before a vaccine was introduced.

After a three-month coma, physical therapy, surgery for scoliosis and with only one functional lung, she led an active career in communications, including at Radio-Canada, before post-polio syndrome hit and caused her muscles to atrophy.

She said her suffering has intensified and her condition has worsened since 1994 and especially in the last two years. 

"My body can't support me anymore," said Gladu, who has testified in a provincial commission examining medical aid in dying.

"What I'm asking for is respect for all those like me, who have been watching death in the face for a long time in a progressive rather than spectacular fashion."

Gladu noted that she's thought of going to Zurich, where non-residents can receive medical assistance in dying, but would like to die "in my apartment with my wonderful friends."

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette says he has has some concerns with the federal assisted-dying law. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Speaking earlier Wednesday, Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said he's had his own concerns with the wording of the federal law.

He said he's already heard of people with degenerative diseases trying to starve themselves to bypass the criteria demanding that death be reasonably foreseeable.

"I am to some extent happy it's being challenged," he said.

It's not the first time the criteria have been disputed.

Last summer, a 25-year-old woman with spinal muscular atrophy in British Columbia filed a lawsuit with the BC Civil Liberties Association in the province's Supreme Court, challenging the same provision in the federal law. And in May, a 68-year-old Delta, B.C., woman suffering from Parkinson's disease added her name to the challenge.

Philpott confident 'law is the right law'

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott responded to questions about the challenge, saying the government has launched studies into the law and is still waiting for results.

Health Minister Jane Philpott says the federal government has confidence in the assisted-dying law, but is studying it further. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

 "We know that there are some issues that people wanted more conversation about," Philpott said.

"I don't want to speculate on where we will go from here. We have confidence that the law is the right law for Canadians, that it responded to the requests — to the decision — previous decision of the Supreme Court and that it is providing an opportunity for Canadians to have access."

With files from Elias Abboud and Alison Northcott