Not unlike the debate currently going on before the Supreme
Court of Canada surrounding physician assisted suicide, we have
seen and heard public outcry and resistance to changes in laws
governing social and moral issues before. Decriminalising
homosexuality, legalising abortion and even divorce laws in
Québec and Newfoundland in the 1950s to name a few.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada revisited the matter when
it began hearing an appeal brought by the B.C. Civil Liberties
Association. The Association, along with two British Columbia
families, is arguing that the current law violates the rights of
terminally ill Canadians. If public opinion polls are any
indication, it would seem that the majority of Canadians and
Canadian health professionals agree. According to a 2014 Dying with
survey, 84% of Canadians and 85% of Canadian health
professionals support the legalization of assisted dying.
From a legal perspective, there are many sides to this issue. At
the core of the current debate is the concern that should
physician-assisted suicide becomes legal, it may be abused by weary
and overwhelmed caregivers who are responsible for the disabled or
elderly. That concern however can be addressed by fashioning a law
that only allows physician-assisted suicide for people who are of
sound mind, if not sound body. While it is likely that some will
argue this is unfair to disabled people who are truly suffering
– Robert Latimer, the Canadian farmer who was convicted of
second-degree murder in the 1993 "compassionate homicide"
of his severely disabled daughter Tracy comes to mind –we
have to face the reality that there are hard choice to make.
Another concern is that physicians will be placed in a
compromising position, asked to administer end-of-life-care that
goes against their moral, religious or ethical beliefs. If
physician-assisted-suicide becomes the law, will doctors who refuse
to carry it out get in trouble? This is a legitimate concern; if
the law is changed, physicians must be given a choice as
to whether or not they will practice assisted suicide. In all
likelihood there will be a limited number of physicians who
actually offer the service, and, just as doctors who prescribe
methadone are specifically registered to do so through their
governing bodies, likely similar regulations will be imposed on
physicians who do elect to practice assisted suicide.
Even if a physician does choose to assist those in his or her
care with suicide, there is still the very real possibility that
surviving family members will bring suit against that doctor.
Family members who don't agree with assisted dying and who put
their own interests and agendas ahead of a terminally ill loved one
could foreseeably seek restitution by suing the physician who
honoured their loved one's wishes. For that reason, in the
event physician-assisted-suicide becomes legal, there needs to be a
corresponding immunity protecting doctors who have acted in good
faith and that prevents family members from suing them.
The overarching legal issue currently on the table is the
question of whether the law should be used to prevent activities
that were once, but perhaps are no longer, deemed socially
undesirable, such as abortion, homosexuality and divorce. As the
Supreme Court of Canada, and, for that matter, Canadians in
general, considers the law regarding physician-assisted-suicide, it
is essential to remember that the law must keep pace with society
itself. If it does not, it is in danger of becoming irrelevant and
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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