Physician-Assisted Dying (October 2012)

A recent British Columbia court decision granted Gloria Taylor’s request to permit physician-assisted dying, found certain provisions of the Criminal Code to be unconstitutional. The federal government has appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

It is time to take stock of Canadians’ changing values and perceptions on this issue and review the Criminal Code provisions.

The challenge is how to allow persons to manage end-of-life in a manner that tries to reduce pain and maintain dignity, while ensuring that the choice is always that of the patient and is always freely given.

In my view, it is clear that there are circumstances where imposing a criminal penalty against the doctor or loved ones – effectively forces an individual to have their life prolonged in such a way as to constitute cruelty that contradicts the dignity of life itself.

But drawing that line is no easy task.

We need to engage in widespread consultation with the public, the health care professions, and spiritual leaders of different faiths, as well as ethicists.

We need to consider the Charter, and the role of the provinces in regulating health care and health professionals.

Finally, we need to carefully evaluate the experience of other liberal democracies that have moved in the direction of decriminalization, and determine whether the risks of abuse have been properly controlled and how.

On my website, I have proposed an arms-length Criminal Law Commission reporting to Parliament that could be given responsibility for the consultation process.