The Supreme Court of Canada has unanimously struck down a ban on doctor-assisted suicide.
In a ruling released this morning, Canada's highest court concluded that the prohibition violates the charter right to life, liberty, and security of the person for "competent" adults who clearly consent to the termination of their lives and who have a "grievous and irremediable medical condition".
In addition, this condition must cause "suffering that is intolerable to the individual".
The court suspended its ruling for a year to give federal and provincial governments an opportunity to bring forward new legislation that meets this constitutional requirement.
The case was brought forward by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association along with fellow appellants Lee Carter, Hollis Johnson, William Shoichet, and Gloria Taylor.
Carter's mother Kay was terminally ill in 2010 when she went to Switzerland, where she was able to obtain assisted suicide. Johnson is Kay Carter's son-in-law.
Shoichet is a Victoria doctor who's stated that palliative care is not always a viable option for his patients.
Taylor, who had amytrophic lateral sclerosis, wanted the legal right to obtain a physician-assisted death. She died of an infection before the appeal was heard.
“We’re thrilled with the decision," BCCLA litigation director Grace Pastine said in a news release issued this morning. "It gives seriously and incurably ill Canadians the right to seek physician assistance to end their lives in a humane way. We’re very relieved that Canadians will have choice at the end of life. The Court ruled that seriously ill Canadians deserve a peaceful and dignified choice, rather than being forced to suffer and live in fear about how they will die. We expect that the federal and provincial governments will honour this ruling and recognize that physician-assisted dying is one of many choices that competent patients can make as part of compassionate end-of-life medical care.”
The court ruled that this option should not be restricted to those with terminal illnesses and should be open to any competent adult who regards their medical condition as "intolerable", "grievous", and "irremediable".
The B.C. Court of Appeal has previously overturned a B.C. Supreme Court ruling striking down the law.
B.C.'s highest court ruled that the trial judge was bound to follow an earlier Supreme Court of Canada decision involving deceased Victoria resident Sue Rodriguez, which had upheld the ban on physician-assisted suicide.
The Supreme Court of Canada, however, ruled that the "trial judge was entitled to revisit this Court’s decision in Rodriguez"".
"Trial courts may reconsider settled rulings of higher courts in two situations: (1) where a new legal issue is raised; and (2) where there is a change in the circumstances or evidence that fundamentally shifts the parameters of the debate. Here, both conditions were met," the Supreme Court of Canada stated in its decision. "The argument before the trial judge involved a different legal conception of s. 7 [of the charter] than that prevailing when Rodriguez< was decided. In particular, the law relating to the principles of overbreadth and gross disproportionality had materially advanced since Rodriguez. The matrix of legislative and social facts in this case also differed from the evidence before the Court in Rodriguez."
Pollsters have found that a large majority of Canadians support allowing physicians to help some patients die under certain circumstances. For more on this issue, see Daniel Wood's 2010 Georgia Straight cover story: "Euthanasia: Whose death is it anyway?"