Right to die proponents welcome Supreme Court’s decision to revisit ban on assisted suicide

MS patient Elayne Shapray (left) and B.C. Civil Liberties Association's Grace Pastine are fighting the assisted …

A multiple sclerosis sufferer is welcoming the Supreme Court of Canada's decision to revisit the law banning assisted suicide.

“I am overjoyed that the Supreme Court of Canada has decided to hear this case," Elayne Shapray, who filed an affidavit supporting the B.C. Civil Liberties Association's application for the high court to hear the case, said in a statement released by the association.

The court said Thursday it would hear an appeal of the B.C. Court of Appeal decision overturning a 2012 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that had struck down the law against assisted suicide, The Canadian Press reported.

The initial case was brought by Gloria Taylor, who suffered from the terminal neurological disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, who argued the ban on assisted suicide violated her Charter rights to equal treatment because able-bodied people can legally kill themselves.

[ Related: Assisted suicide is climbing up the public agenda ]

The B.C. Supreme Court agreed but gave the government a year to change the law. Meanwhile, with an appeal anticipated, Taylor was also granted a constitutional exemption to the law but she died without exercising it.

The B.C. Appeal Court reversed the lower court ruling but the family of Kay Carter, who accompanied the 89-year-old woman to Switzerland so she could legally commit assisted suicide in 2010, continuing the fight with the help of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Shapray said she supported the challenge's aim to give people like her the right to die with dignity.

"My hope is that the court will allow people in my situation who endure intolerable suffering from a variety of conditions to choose a peaceful, dignified death surrounded by loved ones and many friends," she said. "As the law now stands, I will be obliged to end my life without the assistance of a physician, and will have to act alone, while I still can.

"While I do not want to traumatize my family by ending my life through self-starvation, over medication or some horrible self-inflicted injury, these are the only choices until the Supreme Court rules that the laws are unconstitutional.”

Gloria Taylor (CBC)

Grace Pastine, the association's litigation director, said she was relieved the Supreme Court decided to hear the case and is hopeful it might lead to changes allowing Canadians to choose "a dignified and peaceful death."

“There are few rights more fundamental, or more deeply personal, than the right to determine how much suffering to endure and whether to seek a doctor’s assistance to hasten death if living becomes unbearable," she said in a statement.

[ Related: Ailing Winnipeg woman commits assisted suicide in Switzerland

The Supreme Court tackled assisted suicide two decades ago, when it upheld the law in the case of Victoria resident Sue Rodriguez, who also suffered from ALS. Despite the ruling, Rodriguez committed assisted suicide the following year.

But four of the nine Supreme Court justices in the Rodriguez case dissented from the majority decision, which gave right-to-die advocates hope the court might someday revisit the issue. That day has come.

"We are taking this case to the highest court in the land because the right to control when and how to die is integral to the liberty, security and well-being of Canadians, and cannot be unnecessarily interfered with by the state," said Joseph Arvay, one of the lead lawyers in the case, in the association's release.

Opponents of assisted suicide see it as the first step in sanctioning legal euthanasia, which they believe will lead to abuses such as pressure for the aged and disabled to end their lives.

A significant number of countries now allow for physician-assisted dying. The experience in these countries reveals that fears about physician-assisted dying are unfounded. It is time for Canada to adopt a new approach.
Joseph Arvay

"There has been a sea change in recent years in the social and legislative facts underpinning the Court’s decision in Sue Rodriguez’s case," Arvay said.

"A significant number of countries now allow for physician-assisted dying. The experience in these countries reveals that fears about physician-assisted dying are unfounded. It is time for Canada to adopt a new approach.”

The Conservative government, which supports the Rodriguez decision, will be watching this case closely.

The Supreme Court likely will hear the case this year, perhaps with a decision later in the year or early in 2015, heading into the scheduled May federal election. Expect it to be a major election issue if the court overturns the law.