Montrealers argue for right to assisted dying in pivotal court challenge

In closing arguments, the lawyer for two Montrealers challenging Canada's medical aid in dying laws says his clients have demonstrated their clear desire to die and should not be denied that right, even if they are not yet close to the end of their natural lives.

Closing arguments underway in case of Jean Truchon, 51, and Nicole Gladu, 73

Nicole Gladu, 73, holds a copy of her lawyers' closing arguments in her case. She hopes a judge will declare invalid certain provisions of Quebec's and Canada's laws, which require that a person's death be foreseeable, in order for them to access medical aid in dying. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)

During a break in her court proceedings, Nicole Gladu wheeled down a corridor of the Montreal courthouse in the electric wheelchair she was forced to start using last month — a sign, she says, of how quickly her muscles are degenerating.

"I consider myself like a house, where the brick and the mortar are just giving up," she said.

Gladu, who had polio as a child and later developed post-polio syndrome, says her suffering has intensified, particularly in the past two years, and her body can no longer support her.

"I don't want to die. I want to stop the suffering," Gladu told reporters. "The death is not the object, it is the means."

"For me, living like I am actually, it's an existence, much more than a life."

Gladu is one of two Quebecers challenging Quebec's and Canada's medical aid in dying laws. They want the right to access a doctor's help to die, even if they are not yet close to the end of their natural lives.

Closing arguments in the constitutional challenge began Monday before Quebec Superior Court Justice Christine Baudouin.

Gladu, 73, and co-plaintiff Jean Truchon, 51, argue both the provincial and federal laws are too restrictive. 

Canada's law requires that a person seeking the right to medical aid in dying must be at the point where their death is foreseeable; Quebec's law is even more restrictive, requiring that a person seeking the right to a medically assisted death be at the "end of life."

Nicole Gladu, left, and Jean Truchon are challenging the laws restricting access to medically assisted dying. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Gladu believes the concept of "foreseeable death" leaves too much to the interpretation of doctors evaluating each case.

"All my life, it was my ... nature to control life as much as I could," Gladu, a former journalist, told reporters outside the courtroom. "I guess I want to get old the same way."

Protecting the vulnerable

Lawyers for the federal government have argued that the "foreseeable death" criterion is necessary to protect "vulnerable" people who are suffering from a serious ailment but are not fatally ill from using the law as a way to die by suicide.

But lawyer Jean-Pierre Ménard said during closing arguments Monday the laws don't define who is a vulnerable person and argued there is a difference between suicide and medical aid in death.

"The action they want to take has nothing to do with suicide," he said.

It's "not at all impulsive."

Ménard said psychological evaluations of his clients have shown that they are able to consent and are not suffering from depression or any other psychological condition that could impair their judgment.

He argues that other provisions in the law already protect those who are vulnerable, as doctors must assess their mental state and determine that they are making an informed choice before granting their approval.

As well, those approved for medical aid in dying must demonstrate their capacity to consent right up until the final moment.

Truchon and Gladu suffer from serious health problems that cause persistent and intolerable suffering, and their conditions have deteriorated significantly, he said.

Truchon, who was not at court today, has cerebral palsy and lost the use of his only functioning limb in 2012. 

Ménard argued that the laws, as written, do not accurately reflect the Supreme Court's unanimous Carter decision in 2015, which did not include any stipulation that a person must be close to a natural death in order to access a doctor's help to end their life.

The Supreme Court's decision said those with a "grievous and irremediable medical condition" should have the right to access medical aid in dying.

The Quebec and federal governments will make their closing arguments in support of the existing laws, once Ménard wraps up his arguments.

That's expected to take until Feb. 28.


Ainslie MacLellan is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter: @CBCAinslie.