Reflections on the Carter v. Canada decision. By EFC President Bruce J. Clemenger
The Supreme Court ruled February 6 that the prohibition against physician-assisted suicide is unconstitutional in certain circumstances and has given Parliament 12 months to respond. As the definition of “physician-assisted death” includes the provision or administration of medication that intentionally brings about a person’s death, both assisted suicide (provision of lethal drugs) and euthanasia (administration of lethal drugs) will be legal for people who meet certain criteria.
The person must be “a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition,” according to the Court.
As Christians, we affirm the sanctity of human life. We agreed with the government who argued in this case that the prohibition against assisted suicide was to preserve life and protect the vulnerable. The Supreme Court also affirms the sanctity of human life, calling it “one of our most important fundamental societal values.” On this basis the Supreme Court had previously upheld the ban on assisted suicide and euthanasia.
However in this controversial decision sadly the Court has overturned its previous decision and has now ruled that in some circumstances the autonomy of the individual supersedes the interest of society in having a legal system that unambiguously affirms the sanctity of human life. A threshold has been crossed and in some cases assisted suicide and euthanasia will be condoned. Canadian law formerly adhered to the biblical principle “you should not kill.” This has changed.
The decision refers to physicians assisting in someone’s death by providing medication, which suggests that both the medical profession and the health-care system will be involved. As such, it is not a private act between two people, but a public act regulated by a process designed and monitored by the government, and possibly publicly funded. It concerns us all.
The Court noted the concerns of medical professionals, who requested that any legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia must include a robust protection of their freedom of conscience and religion. While affirming physicians’ Charter rights of conscience and religion and stating its view that “nothing in [this decision] would compel physicians to provide assistance in dying,” the Court left the specifics to legislatures, regulators and future court cases, noting that patients’ rights (to access assisted death) must also be considered.
This raises the question whether physicians who refuse to euthanize their patients may be compelled to refer their patients to a doctor willing to do so, as proposed by draft regulations in Ontario and Saskatchewan. Many Christians consider a referral for abortion or voluntary euthanasia to be impermissible participation in the act of killing itself.
The Court has given Parliament 12 months to draft new legislation in keeping with the decision, which acknowledges that the “risks inherent in physician-assisted suicide” call for “a carefully-designed system imposing stringent limits that are scrupulously monitored and enforced.” Parliament will now need to define the terms “grievous” and “irremediable,” and put in place safeguards to ensure the process is not abused, that the vulnerable are protected, and that the newfound “right” is only exercised by those who truly consent, free of cognitive impairment, judgment-clouding depression or coercion and manipulation, and after being fully informed of their diagnosis, prognosis and available treatment options including palliative care and dignity therapy.
With a federal election scheduled within the 12-month deadline, we urge the government to move quickly to design and implement stringent safeguards to ensure the practice of physician-assisted death is rare, and to ensure that good quality palliative care is available to all who require it. As Canadians, we need to ensure that those suffering are comforted and cared for, and that no one will come to the place where they would be so desperate as to choose to die.
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger