On Friday, June 15th, BC Supreme Court Judge Lynn Smith ruled that an absolute ban on all assisted suicide infringes the rights of people whose disabilities prevent them from taking their own lives. She gave Parliament one year to redraft the province’s law against assisted suicide, calling it, “unconstitutional”.
The case was brought to court by five plaintiffs, including Gloria Taylor, a woman from West Kelowna, B.C. who suffers from ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease.
Judge Smith’s 395-page ruling noted that suicide isn’t illegal and that Section 15 of the charter guarantees equality for all people. As a result, the Judge said that the law against assisted suicide is unconstitutional, because it denies people with physical disability the right to control how to end their own lives—a right that able-bodied people are free to exercise at their will.
“The impact of that distinction is felt particularly acutely by persons such as Ms. Taylor who are grievously and irremediably ill, physically disabled or soon to become so, mentally competent and who wish to have some control over their circumstances at the end of their lives,” Smith writes.
“The distinction is discriminatory … because it perpetuates disadvantage.”
At the end of her ruling, Smith clarifies it should only apply to “competent, fully informed, non-ambivalent adult persons who personally (not through a substituted decision-maker) request physician-assisted death, are free from coercion and undue influence and are not clinically depressed.”
Gloria Taylor was emotional when she heard the news. “This is a blessing for me and for all other seriously ill Canadians,” she said. “I’m so grateful to know that if I choose to do so I will be allowed to seek a doctor’s help to a peaceful and dignified death. This brings me great solace and comfort.”
However, not everyone is happy about Judge Smith’s ruling. There are many who are outraged on a moral level and others who are concerned that the ruling will result in the untimely and unnecessary death of many for whom the law was not directly intended. This is highlighted by many who experience spinal cord injury.
Over the 55 years Spinal Cord Injury BC has been providing support and services for people with SCI, we have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of stories from the our members who recall that soon after their injury, they just wanted to die. This was because they did not see any hope for a meaningful or fulfilling future given the loss of function and independence they may have experienced after their injury. Fortunately, assisted suicide was not an option for them, and with the help of our services and a broad community of support and services, most of them have discovered that their lives have meaning and that they can have productive and rewarding lives. They are thankful to be alive today.
I think it is important to consider that legalizing assisted suicide does not mean that those members with spinal cord injury who wanted to die after their injury, because of their injury, will now be free and able to seek assistance in taking their own lives because they can’t bear to imagine their life with their resulting disability. Spinal cord injury is not a terminal illness. There is hope for a brighter future. It can result in various levels of disability and a wide range of secondary complications, but it would not likely provide sufficient criteria for someone to seek legal assistance in taking their life.
Some of the emotion in the debate over assisted suicide may arise from the term itself. Suicide is a powerful word. The word “death” is also powerful but in a different way in that it relates to a very natural process in our life cycle and that of any living organism. In some parts of the world where laws permit assisted suicide, different terminology is used, such as “assisted death” or “assisted dying.” I sometimes wonder if less emotionally charged language changes the emotion in the debate.
Leaving out religious beliefs or specific political ideology, the argument really pits dignity and choice against the risk of abuse in the unnecessary ending of life. The BC Supreme Court ruling has allowed parliamentarians a year to ponder the implications before her ruling takes effect. There are sure to be appeals of the ruling. This means it is not a done deal just yet, and I’m sure the public response will help determine where this ruling is headed, which may mean your voice and opinion could still matter—whether you are for or against the assisted suicide law.
Spinal Cord Injury BC is not taking an official position on this issue—it is too personal and our membership has differing opinions on it. Some have already shared those opinions and concerns or praise with us and we encourage everyone else to the same. Easy ways to do that is to comment on this blog and to share your thoughts on our Facebook poll.
Chris McBride brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and capability to his role as SCI BC's Executive Director. Chris is passionate about bringing the broader Spinal Cord Injury Community together, seeking common strategies and relevant initiatives aimed at minimizing disability and maximizing the quality of life of people with SCI.
Spinal Cord Injury BC (SCI BC) helps people with spinal cord injury* (SCI) and their families adjust, adapt and thrive by providing answers, information and community experiences.
The work we do would not be possible without the support of our members. Join or renew your membership with SCI BC and be an integral part of this vibrant and engaged community