Pro-life groups are welcoming a July 13 announcement that the Canadian government will appeal a court ruling legalizing assisted suicide.
In making the announcement, Rob Nicholson, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, stated, “The Government is of the view that the Criminal Code provisions that prohibit medical professionals, or anyone else, from counselling or providing assistance in a suicide, are constitutionally valid … The laws surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are most vulnerable, such as people who are sick or elderly or people with disabilities.”
A number of pro-life groups had been urging the government to appeal the decision. For instance, on July 4, The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) called on Catholics to “enter into the public debate on end-of-life issues” and in particular to “contact their Members of Parliament to ask them to oppose any attempt to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.” The call comes in response to several developments, the most notable of them being the court ruling.
On June 15, Justice Lynn Smith of the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that Canada’s ban on assisted suicide is unconstitutional.
The case centres on Gloria Taylor, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2009 and wants help to commit suicide once she has become incapacitated. The case was also brought by The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association; by William Shoichet, a doctor from Victoria, B.C.; and by Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson, whose mother and mother-in-law Kay Carter died by assisted suicide in Switzerland in 2009.
The case concerns Section 241 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which says that “Every one who (a) counsels a person to commit suicide, or (b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.”
Smith ruled that the section violated Section 15 (Equality Rights) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Her reasoning was that since “the law does not prohibit suicide,” the law against assisted suicide discriminates against people who are physically unable to commit suicide.
As well, Smith ruled that Section 241 violates Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” In addition to restricting Taylor’s freedom to commit suicide, Smith said the law “may shorten her life … if she concludes that she needs to take her own life while she is still physically able to do so.” Smith further concluded that the law could take away the liberty of those who assist in a suicide by putting them in prison.
Smith’s 394-page ruling includes some background information which qualifies her statement that “the law does not prohibit suicide.” Under English common law, suicide was illegal until 1823, although prosecutions were rare; punishments consisted of confiscating the person’s estate and displaying the body publicly. Smith noted in her ruling, “Given the practical difficulties of prosecuting a successful suicide, most prosecutions centred on attempted suicide.”
Attempted suicide remained illegal in Canada until 1972, when it was removed from the Criminal Code. The change does not appear to have been intended to give approval to suicide; the Minister of Justice at the time, Otto Lang, stated that there were better solutions to attempted suicide than putting the person in prison.
In a 2009 blog, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada stated, “There is no right to commit suicide that can be found in human rights or constitutional law. While many claim such a right does or should exist, it would fly in the face of the life affirming principles of section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which seeks to guarantee the protection of life, liberty and security of the person. What we have in Canada is a compassionate response to those who have attempted suicide by no criminalization of their efforts.”
In her ruling, Smith agreed that the Supreme Court has recognized that the intent of Parliament’s decision was not “that the autonomy interest of those who might wish to kill themselves is paramount to the state interest in protecting the lives of citizens; rather, it was to recognize that attempted suicide did not mandate a legal remedy.”
Smith has issued a “stay,” meaning that her ruling does not become effective for a year. This gives the Canadian government time to appeal the ruling or change the law. However, she granted an exception to Taylor, so she can seek assisted suicide immediately if she chooses.
In its July 13 announcement, the Canadian government announced that it is also objecting to this exception. It also stated that, “In April 2010, a large majority of Parliamentarians voted not to change these laws, which is an expression of democratic will on this topic.”
Since 1991, nine private member’s bills have been introduced in the House of Commons to make assisted suicide legal. The most recent, Bill C-384, An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (right to die with dignity), was defeated by a vote of 228 to 59 on April 21, 2010. However, Smith also considered “Dying with Dignity,” the March 2012 report of a Select Committee of the Assemblée Nationale of Québec, which recommended that assisted suicide be allowed in Quebec even if it is forbidden by the Canadian Criminal Code.
Smith’s ruling has been denounced by a number of pro-life agencies.
In expressing his opposition to the ruling, Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton and President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the issue boils down to two options: “Do we show concern for the sick, the elderly, the handicapped and vulnerable by encouraging them to commit suicide or through deliberating killing them by euthanasia? Or, instead, do we fashion a culture of life and love in which each person, at every moment and in all circumstances of their natural lifespan, is treasured as a gift?”
In a blog posted by the Christian think tank Cardus, Peter Stockland described Justice Smith’s decision as “morally horrifying, intellectually fraudulent, and politically destructive of Canadians as a self-governing people. Its transformation of our much vaunted public health care system into an instrument for delivering suicide should chill the blood of all who feel moral revulsion at the very thought of the State arranging and systematizing the deaths of citizens … Once we have taken the step from thinking of killing as unthinkable to considering it a normal part of medical routine, we have crossed the barrier from civilization to savagery.”
Cecilia Forsyth, national president of REAL Women of Canada, pointed out in a press release that Smith’s decision was not surprising since “She formerly held the position of President of the legal arm of the feminist organization, The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)” and has a history of opposing “the protection of the lives of vulnerable patients.”
Life Site News reported that in 1991, Smith was the lead attorney for LEAF on behalf of two midwives who were convicted in a lower court of “criminal negligence” for their part in the death of a baby that died during delivery. Smith successfully argued that a “foetus is not a person.” Life Site News commented that this is consistent with the feminist refrain “my body, my choice.”
The Sanctity of Life
Behind the legal question lies a philosophical issue: who ultimately has jurisdiction over a human being?
Smith noted in her ruling that in the past, “The common law considered suicide to be a form of homicide that offended against both God and the King’s interest in the life of his citizens.”
In his statement on behalf of the Canadian government, Nicholson recognized that the state has an interest in the lives of its citizens: “The Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged the state interest in protecting human life and upheld the constitutionality of the existing legislation in Rodriguez (1993).”
Nicholson was referring to a 1993 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which denied another British Columbia woman, Sue Rodriquez, the right to commit suicide. The Supreme Court ruled that the “security of the person” in section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had to be balanced with the “sanctity of life” inherent in the same section.
However, Smith also cited a Supreme Court decision regarding abortionist Henry Morgentaler in 1988. That decision stated that “security of the person” involves “personal autonomy involving, at the very least, control over one’s bodily integrity free from state interference.” That is, Smith applied to assisted suicide the “my body, my choice” philosophy that was earlier used to justify abortion.
This view of the absolute autonomy of the individual human being is quite different from the Christian view. Archbishop Richard Smith stated, “The Catholic position on this question is clear. Human life is a gift from God. Therefore, as taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2280, ‘We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.’”
In a separate statement Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver, J. Michael Miller, said the decision “sadly reflects a distorted view of equality rights that emphasizes autonomy over human dignity and the value of life.”
What seems at odds with this insistence on personal autonomy is the application that suicide be assisted by the state-run medical system.
The other issue raised by pro-life groups is the impact on vulnerable groups (the disabled and the elderly), who may face pressure to accept death. The pressure may come from relatives who may want freedom from the responsibility of caring for a family member or who may even want the vulnerable person’s financial assets. The pressure may also come from the medical community struggling with inadequate health care budgets.
Smith’s ruling addressed this issue at considerable length. She admitted that there is some risk and that “non-voluntary euthanasia continues in both the Netherlands and Belgium,” where physician-assisted suicide is legal. However, she concluded “that the risks inherent in permitting physician-assisted death can be identified and very substantially minimized through a carefully-designed system imposing stringent limits that are scrupulously monitored and enforced.”
Pro-life groups argue that such safeguards do not work. Dr. Will Johnston, British Columbia chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, stated, “Most elder abuse is hidden from view – and if we can’t detect the abuse now, how are we going to do it when the stakes are raised? … I have seen how easily influenced older people can be, and how inadequate are our national strategies against suicide.”
An earlier statement by The Catholic Organization for Life and Family noted, “In countries that have legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide — even where safeguards and restrictions have been put in place — human life has been further devalued to the point where particularly vulnerable individuals have been pressured to commit suicide in the name of cost efficiency. This danger is real and likely to increase as health care dollars shrink and demand for services swell.”
Archbishop Miller said in the statement issued on June 16, “We have been down this road many times around the world, and all the safeguards initially put in place wind up either disregarded or eventually dispensed with. The result is euthanasia harms not only those whose lives are taken, but those responsible for taking them.”