We do not agree that the… right to
life requires an absolute prohibition
on assistance in dying, or that
individuals cannot “waive” their
right to life. This would create a “duty
to live”, rather than a “right to life.”
– Supreme Court of Canada
Before the introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, many of our laws were anachronisms from a bygone era when the freedom of individuals were of lesser concern to policy makers.
Since the introduction of the charter, individual rights in Canada have advanced in leaps and bounds. Friday’s Supreme Court decision effectively legalizing assisted suicide for those suffering from “grievous and irremediable” illnesses was one of the most important advances we have seen in a while.
The decision is a welcome reversal of a two-decades-old decision where a narrow majority of the court invoked the “sanctity of life” to deny Sue Rodriguez relief from a life of suffering with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Rodriguez later did succeed in taking her own life with the help of a doctor whose identity was never found out publicly.
Critics of the ruling claim that the court has ventured down a dangerous, slippery slope. They assert that allowing capable adults suffering from grievous and irremediable illnesses to make the voluntary choice to seek assistance in dying somehow puts the disabled at risk. There is also a fear that moving the bar a little in terms of allowing assisted dying in some circumstances means we are only a short distance from killing our elderly relatives when the bills from their nursing homes get too expensive.
The problem with this type of argument is that it is itself a slippery slope – a slippery slope to inaction.
Sometimes it is incumbent on us as a society to grab those ice picks, strap on some mountaineering boots, venture down that slippery slope, and draw a line in the ice. The consequences of not doing so is the lived experience of thousands of Canadians who have watched their loved ones die in agony, unable to ameliorate their pain, or to accede to their clearly expressed final wishes for fear of a lengthy prison sentence. In other cases, Canadians have had to deal with the premature death of loved ones who take their own life long before it is necessary for fear that they won’t be able to do so later.
Society is capable of establishing limits, and even if we don’t necessarily agree on where the exact line is, we have substantial agreement that it exists somewhere beyond assisting capable adults suffering grievous and irremediable illnesses who make a voluntary choice to exit this world earlier than they otherwise might. A poll conducted last fall by Ipsos Reid found that a full 86 per cent of Canadians support assisted suicide in the circumstances enumerated by the Supreme Court of Canada. It is rare to find an issue where public opinion is so on side.
Even though the charter was designed as an instrument to protect the rights of individuals against the tyranny of the majority, on this particular issue it is not even the majority that individuals have to contend with. Rather it is our weak-kneed politicians who are desperately behind the times – erring in favour of the status quo for fear of having to deal with a so-called “hot button” issue.
Thankfully the Supreme Court has forced the government’s hand on what is a fundamental issue of individual rights. And unlike the court’s ruling in the Bedford case on prostitution, the court has left little wiggle room for our tone deaf and rigidly conservative federal government to thwart the purpose of the ruling.
If there is anything unfortunate – albeit understandable – about the Supreme Court’s decision it is that its effect has been suspended for a year. This means that thousands more Canadians will be forced to suffer a painful death while politicians scramble to do what they should have done years ago and put in place the necessary safeguards.
Invoking the “sanctity of life” to refuse assisted dying – as the Supreme Court did in the Rodriguez case, and opponents do to this day – fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of and ideal locus of control over our lives.
Our lives should belong to us as individuals, not to society or the state, particularly as we prepare ourselves for our curtain call. It should be our prerogative to seek assistance from willing individuals if the pain and suffering we endure is no longer, in our own subjective opinion, justified by whatever joys we find in life.
As humans there are many things that we just can’t control in this world – from the mundane to the life altering. Those who ask for the assistance of others in ending their suffering did not ask for cancer, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The state can help ensure that the decision is made consciously and without undue influence but after that it should butt out. This is as fundamental an issue of individual rights as any and the Supreme Court was right to correct a profound injustice. As the court rightly observed, we have a “right to life” not a “duty to live”.
Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.