Archbishop Smith ‘deeply disappointed’ with court ruling on assisted suicide

February 6, 2015

In the wake of a unanimous Supreme Court decision legalizing assisted suicide in Canada, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith urged Catholics to work with their members of Parliament to ensure that the nation’s health care system respects every human life to its natural end.

The health care system should also provide “the best and most accessible end-of-life care possible,” Smith said in a Feb. 6 prepared statement.

The archbishop said he was “deeply disappointed” to learn of the Supreme Court ruling in the Carter case, which struck down the law prohibiting doctors from assisting certain patients to die.

“We believe the current provisions in the Criminal Code prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia have served Canadians well, by protecting all persons, including those who are most vulnerable in our society,” Smith said.

“The law can only respect the inherent dignity of each Canadian life if it acknowledges that no one has the right to take action that would intentionally end another’s life.”

The Supreme Court ruled that adults who are mentally competent and who suffer intolerably and permanently should have the right to a doctor’s assistance if they wish to take their own lives. Such suffering can be either physical or psychological.

The court gave federal and provincial governments a year to craft legislation and regulations should they choose. In the meantime the Criminal Code provision remains in effect.

The court said the law against assisted suicide is cruel and said that it harms those who suffer terribly and unchangingly.

It ruled the Criminal Code provisions unjustifiably infringe on section seven of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which protects the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

“The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly,” the court said.

“Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable.”

“The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged,” the decision said.

Archbishop Smith said requests to die are often made as a cry for an end to suffering, and that “this cry is impossible to ignore for those who witness the suffering.

“But the compassionate response must be to provide social, emotional and spiritual support, and the best pain management and palliative care possible.”

Smith said he is still reviewing details of the Supreme Court ruling. “However, the ruling underlines the urgent need for improved access to palliative care for all Canadians, as outlined so well in the recent report of the Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care.”

The court overturned its 1993 Rodriguez decision, saying the trial judge was right to take on the case because there was “a new legal issue raised” and “there was a change in the circumstances or evidence that fundamentally shifts the parameters of the debate.”

The SCOC determined the “law relating to the principles of overbreadth and gross disproportionality had materially advanced since Rodriguez.”

The court said the prohibition on assisted suicide “is a valid exercise of federal criminal law power and it does not impair the protected core of provincial jurisdiction over health.”

“Health is an area of concurrent jurisdiction, which suggests that aspects of physician-assisted dying maybe be the subject of valid legislation by both levels of government, depending on the circumstances and the focus of the legislation.”

On the principle of overbreadth, the court decided the prohibition was not in accord with “fundamental justice.”

“The object of the prohibition is not, broadly, to preserve life whatever the circumstances, but more specifically to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness,” the decision said.

The total ban achieves the objective of protecting the vulnerable but is overbroad in that it “catches people outside the class of protected persons.”

The court agreed with the trial judge that evidence from “scientists, medical practitioners and others who are familiar with end-of-life decision-making in Canada and abroad, that a permissive regime with properly designed and administered safeguards was capable of protecting vulnerable people from abuse and error.”

The decision said, “Nothing in this declaration would compel physicians to provide assistance in dying.”

However, the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in both Ontario and Saskatchewan are proposing policy changes that would ultimately require doctors to refer on cases of assisted suicide, or in some instances to kill their patients.

The decision pointed out that in 1993 no Western jurisdiction permitted assisted suicide, but since 2010 “eight jurisdictions permitted some form of assisted dying: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Colombia.”

The Carter case began in 2009 with Gloria Taylor, who like Sue Rodriguez, suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson joined the case. Carter had assisted her mother Kathleen Carter in obtaining an assisted death at a Swiss suicide clinic.

The court said Taylor knew she could not request assisted suicide and lacked the money to travel to Switzerland.

“This left her with what she described as the ‘cruel choice’ between killing herself while she was still physically capable of doing so, or giving up the ability to exercise any control over the manner and timing of her death.”