Canada Court OKs Assisted Suicide

Mentally competent patients with terminal illnesses have the right to physician assistance in ending their lives, Canada's top court has ruled. The justices overruled a lower court's decision in case known as Carter v. Canada, upholding Canada's ban on the practice. One of the plaintiffs in that case was a terminally ill woman who did not live to see the successful appeal. She died after traveling to Switzerland at age 89 to get physician help in ending her life.

Mentally competent patients with terminal illnesses have the right to physician assistance in ending their lives, Canada’s top court has ruled. The justices on Feb. 6 overruled a lower court’s decision in a case known as Carter v. Canada, one that upheld Canada’s ban on the practice.

Assisted suicide is legal in the US in Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Several US states are debating the issue and the Canadian ruling is expected to give momentum to US groups advocating to legalize assisted suicide.

One of the plaintiffs in that case was Kay Carter, a terminally ill woman with degenerative spinal disease who did not live to see the successful appeal. She died after traveling to Switzerland at age 89 to legally get physician help in ending her life.

The Supreme Court ruling gives Canada’s lawmakers a year to draft laws spelling out the conditions and circumstances when physicians may give such patients help in dying. Until then a ban stands. Abetting a suicide carries a maximum 14-year prison sentence in Canada.

The decision Feb. 6 also reversed a 1993 ruling by the Canadian Supreme Court. At that time, the justices said they were concerned that certain vulnerable patients might be pressured to agree to end their lives. But in reversing the judge in the Carter case, the justices said it found no evidence that the disabled or elderly would face such coercion, and that doctors are capable of protecting patients.

In announcing its decision, the court wrote “An absolute prohibition on physician‑assisted dying is rationally connected to the goal of protecting the vulnerable from taking their life in times of weakness, because prohibiting an activity that poses certain risks is a rational method of curtailing the risks."

It continued, “However, as the trial judge found, the evidence does not support the contention that a blanket prohibition is necessary in order to substantially meet the government’s objective.”

The wording of the decision also laid out the dilemma such desperately ill patients face.

A person who is terminally ill “has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes,” the justices wrote, “The choice is cruel.”

There have been several high-profile cases in which Canadians or their families unsuccessfully pressed for the right to get help in dying. The recent decision came after patients' families helped create media attention to the plights of plaintiff Carter and a second terminally ill woman, Gloria Taylor. She died of an infection in 2012, a complication of the ALS that caused her to want to die.