Advocates and medical professionals in the territory are digesting a Supreme Court of Canada decision that legalizes doctor-assisted suicide.
The country’s top court made its landmark ruling Friday. In a unanimous decision the justices said consenting adults suffering from a “grievous and irredeemable medical condition” and “enduring suffering that is intolerable” can ask a medical doctor for help dying.
The court gave governments 12 months to create any required regulations before this decision comes into full effect.
Dr. Rao Tadepalli is a Whitehorse doctor and board member for the Canadian Medical Association.
He said the association’s experts are in the process of putting together recommendations for the federal government on what the new regulations might look like.
“I felt that the societal maturity would take a long time to happen, so I was pleasantly surprised that that’s an option available to a rare group of patients,” he said Tuesday.
Discussions around assisted suicide are part of a bigger equation when it comes to dying, Tadepalli said.
He said palliative care is still his primary focus. But in rare cases, where an informed patient has made the decision, it’s good to have this option available close to home.
“It just shows that we are a progressive, liberal country that respects people’s wishes.”
Tadepalli stresses that the decision to die would be up to the patient, not the doctor.
“If I were to look back in my 20-year career there have been instances where patients have requested that, and I said it’s legally not possible and there are no options available. That would be my response and it would still be my response for the coming year.”
Colette Acheson, executive director of the Yukon Association for Community Living, said it will be important for the federal government to ensure the rights of people with intellectual disabilities are respected, particularly people who depend on others for help.
“(As an able-bodied person), I might look at the struggles and what we might call pain or suffering because of their physical condition, and I might say, ‘oh my God I could never stand that,’” she said.
“I might project my perceptions that this person is in pain or that their life isn’t worth living or that they’re suffering.”
Acheson said she’s known lots of people who experience pain but also experience a full life.
“We just never want someone outside of that person to make that decision for them,” she said.
There is no Yukon-specific law against assisted suicide. Instead, like in most jurisdictions in the country, assisted suicide is illegal because of two parts of the federal criminal code. One says it is a crime to help someone commit suicide, and another that says a person cannot consent to being killed.
Both Health Minister Mike Nixon and Justice Minister Brad Cathers declined interview requests to talk about what changes the territory might have to make following the decision.
Cabinet spokesperson Dan Macdonald said officials are reviewing the ruling and will be monitoring how the federal government responds.
According to news reports, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay has hinted that the government won’t use the notwithstanding clause to override the court’s decision.
He said the federal government intends to solicit a wide range of views before making any decisions.
Tadepalli said he expects the CMA will have its proposed recommendations ready to be voted on at its next annual general meeting, scheduled for August in Halifax.
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