The Spectre of Choice: Canada edges towards legalizing euthanasia

Photo credit:  alexindigo on Flickr

America’s “neighbors to the north” are quietly preparing for a monumental battle that may drastically alter the Canadian understanding and definition of human dignity and worth. It’s a move pro-life advocates need to give their full attention to, as the political reality in Canada makes it likely that any changes will be longstanding and quickly hidden from public discourse.

While the abortion and euthanasia debates have raged for decades in the United States, and are constantly at the front of political and social discussions, issues of life are far less of a focal point in public discourse for Canadians, making it difficult to make any progress at all in implementing legal protections for some of society’s most vulnerable. While nearly every state in the U.S. passed or brought up multiple pieces of legislation, in the last year alone, designed to curtail abortion or further regulate abortion providers, Canada has yet to pass even one law pertaining to abortion, and current Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly promised that the issue won’t be reopened as long as he holds office.

The euthanasia debate has long occupied a similar place as abortion – low on the priority list, if it makes it at all. Fortunately, however, up until now, the status quo regarding assisted suicide has been a countrywide prohibition on the practice, and with twenty years passing between challenges to the ban, the net result of the issue simply not being raised has been to leave the prohibition in place. Many leaders, such as Françoise Boivin, the NDP’s justice critic, would like to leave it that way until after the country’s next election cycle, out of fear that it will “bring back a lot of their righteous people who were a bit disappointed on the government’s attitude and Stephen Harper’s promise to not re-open the abortion issue.”

It is unlikely that those leaders will get their wish, however, with two key events pushing the debate squarely back into the public eye. The first notable occurrence came in a move by political leaders in Quebec to effectively legalize euthanasia in their province. Bill 52 proposes a system for “medical aide in dying” that takes Belgium’s euthanasia legislation as its model. According to the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, a Canadian group opposing assisted suicide, 86% of palliative care physicians oppose the legislation, but passage sometime in early 2014 looks favorable, given that the bill received a passing 84-to-26 “vote in principle” during its second reading in October of last year. The effect seems somewhat unclear, given that assisted suicide is prohibited by the federal criminal code, but it is certain to force the issue to the forefront. If left standing, pro-life advocates fear that the legislation could result in “death tourism” for the Province. Under Bill 52, a person is not eligible to receive euthanasia assistance without a provincial Medicaid card, which in turns requires at least three months’ residence in Quebec. As other provinces seem less open to similar legislation, Quebec may become a destination of death for some of Canada’s most vulnerable citizens.

The second and most important event will be the Supreme Court’s hearing of an appeal from a case originating in British Columbia, commonly referred to now as “the Carter case.” The Carter case was originally brought on behalf of Gloria Taylor, a Canadian woman who was suffering from ALS and was seeking the right to obtain help in dying. In June of 2012, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on assisted suicide and euthanasia violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and granted Plaintiff Gloria Taylor a constitutional exemption from the ban. The federal government quickly appealed, and the BC Court of Appeals struck down the ruling on technical grounds, stating that the lower court was not capable of overturning the prohibition, because the previous court case in 1991, which upheld the federal ban, came from a higher court.

Taylor died from an infection before using the granted constitutional exemption, but the legal challenge to the law is being carried on by the family of a second woman, Kay Carter, who ultimately went to Switzerland to end her life when she was unable to receive euthanasia assistance in Canada. The suit is being brought in concert with British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and additional plaintiffs who have since joined.

The Canadian Supreme Court has granted a right of appeal to BCLA and the plaintiffs, and will be reconsidering whether the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes the right to receive assistance in ending one’s life. At the crux of the Court’s decision will be how the justices define the idea of human dignity and answer the question of what makes life valuable. This court case, therefore, will have a widespread impact not just on issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia, but also on any battlefield where the sanctity of human life is challenged.

Mark Penninga, an expert on the issue of human dignity, is convinced that the Court’s current rationale against the legislation is already on tenuous footing, pointing out that the justices who upheld the prohibition twenty years ago grounded their reasoning in definitions of “dignity” and “sanctity” that essentially boil the value of life down to one’s ability to make decisions – a ruling that effectively devalues any human being who is not capable of living in accordance with his own choices. Penninga fears that this very logic is what will eventually lead euthanasia to be practiced on infants, children, and the mentally-handicapped – all classes of people who are unable to express or live by their own choices and who all are therefore, by the above reasoning, less than a “person.”

What is desperately needed in Canada is for the Supreme Court to find some foothold for the sanctity and value of life that is more secure that simple personal autonomy. Penninga is less than hopeful that this will occur. Perhaps, however, the dire predictions of Françoise Boivin will also come true. Perhaps, after all, this will be what is needed to “bring back a lot of their righteous people” who are dissatisfied with the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards Canada’s most vulnerable, but who are also, as in most countries, more silent than they ought to be.

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