Assisted suicide too risky: feds
VANCOUVER—Legalizing doctor-assisted suicide would demean the value of life and could lead vulnerable people to take drastic steps in “moments of weakness,” the federal government argues in its appeal of a court decision that struck down the ban on the practice.
Ottawa is defending the law that prohibits assisted suicide as it appeals a decision from a British Columbia court, which concluded it is unconstitutional to prevent the sick and dying from asking a doctor to help them end their lives.
“It [the current law’s purpose] is to protect the vulnerable, who might be induced in moments of weakness to commit suicide,” the government said in a 54-page legal argument filed with the B.C. Court of Appeal.
“And it is a reflection of the state’s policy that the inherent value of all human life should not be depreciated by allowing one person to take another’s life. . . .
“It also discourages everyone, even the terminally ill, from choosing death over life,” it added.
The case was launched by several plaintiffs in B.C., including Gloria Taylor, an ALS patient who won an immediate exemption from the law.
Taylor died last month without resorting to assisted suicide.
The debate likely is destined for the Supreme Court of Canada, which last examined this country’s assisted-suicide ban in 1993, when it upheld the law in a case involving Sue Rodriguez.
Rodriguez died with the help of a doctor the following year.
The federal government argues the top court’s ruling in the Rodriguez case was final and says the B.C. Supreme Court had no right to attempt to overrule that decision.
In the B.C. case, the judge concluded the law must allow physician-assisted suicide in cases involving patients who are diagnosed with a serious illness or disability, and who are experiencing “intolerable” physical or psychological suffering with no chance of improvement.
The decision said patients in such scenarios personally must request physician-assisted death, must be free from coercion, and cannot be clinically depressed.
The federal government argues the decision ignored evidence, presented at trial, that indicated safeguards in jurisdictions that allow assisted suicide often are not followed, including a number of cases in which patients were killed without their request.
Some studies have concluded there simply is not enough evidence to conclude whether safeguards have worked.
The government says it can be virtually impossible to determine whether a patient is making a rational decision and isn’t suffering from depression or other cognitive problems.
Nor can physicians and patients be sure the patient wouldn’t change his or her mind if given more time to consider their decision, the government adds.
Given that uncertainty, the government argues it is reasonable to assume legalizing assisted suicide would be harmful and because of that, the courts should leave it to Parliament to decide such a sensitive and emotionally-fraught issue.
In the two decades since the Rodriguez case, Parliament has examined the issue several times.
In each instance, MPs opted to keep the status quo—most recently in April, 2010 when a private member’s bill to legalize assisted suicide was defeated 228-59.